Someone is drowning in a lake and you are watching. She is sinking lower and lower, her head tossed back so that she can just barely manage a gulp of air. You can save her. Most people would argue that ethically you must save her. In his 1971 essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," ethicist Peter Singer compares the general moral obligation to help the drowning to every privileged individual's moral obligation to alleviate global poverty.
People all over the world are dying. They are suffering and we are watching. It is immoral, says Peter Singer, not to do everything in our power to help them. iPods, spankin' new cars, vacations to Disney World... we spend money on these things instead of paying for life-saving surgeries, feeding hungry children or investing in third world economies. According to Singer, the fact that we don´t need to watch the poor suffer doesn´t change the fact that they are drowning and we know it. And we let them.
I can't claim that reading Singer's essay was the reason I joined the Peace Corps, but it definitely instilled in me a sense of... duty? No, something more uncomfortable than that. The scratchy sand pressing all over you under your bathing suit on the way home from the beach.
I'd been to Disney World. I'd gone on very expensive trips all over the world. And -- the horror! -- I had an iPod.
But what to do about all that? Well, I started by not buying a new iPod after my old-school Nano broke. But would that help the hungry children of Africa? I couldn't just donate the money saved. I was an Urban Studies major. I knew about the complications of development work, the band-aid solutions, the causes that just sound good, the charity that unmotivates the beneficiaries, the money that doesn't always reach the ground. The only way, I told myself, the only way is to understand completely what the people need to fish themselves out of their lake. Then I could support them with my iPod money.
I tell people I joined the Peace Corps to understand what it means to be poor, but that´s just part of the story. I joined the Peace Corps to figure out how to escape the guilt of having so much while other people have so little.
Well, now I'm in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and surprised to find that it was not the way to go for moral masturbation.
Here in my rural-ish urban community in Paraguay, I am living in a vat of perpetual boiling hot guilt. And I've found that I am not the only one. All of the following causes us volunteers to feel that little pang in the chest that means we are doing something pretty horrible:
1) Taking time for ourselves
We feel guilty for staying in the house all day, or for being out of site and missing our neighbors' birthday sopa. We feel guilty for watching a movie alone instead of with some Paraguayan neighbors. We're servants of the community, right? It's supposed to be a full-time job. Every hour spent watching a movie is an hour we could have helped a child with his homework. Every trip to visit a friend is a leadership retreat for teenagers that never had the chance to happen.
2) Not sharing personal possessions
Just this week I was called a bruja for not lending my computer to someone. And maybe I am a bruja. Families share with me whatever little food they have and I share nothing. I feel like the meanest witch alive.
3) Being too chuchi (fancy)
How can we live in a house with a modern bathroom if no one else has one? How can we buy the chuchi chocolate from America when our neighbors can't afford a bag of rice? How can we be paying someone to wash our clothes, how can we go on vacation, how can we have hot water, how can we have running water, arrrrghhhhhhh!
4) Being unsustainable
Apparently the whole point of this helping others thing is sustainability. Don't give stuff to the community, get them to work for it themselves! So, that sounds awesome... until you have the opportunity to get 40 free pairs of reading glasses from America. You can nix the freebees or you can help 40 impoverished ancianos to read again. But then you have to accept the hot-headed guilt that comes with it, the possibility that you jeopardize your community's motivation because they realize the truth that their lives would be so much easier if the first world shared some of its money.
5) Failing to save the world
A couple weeks ago, a 9-year-old girl showed up at my house for the first time. I was surprised by the visit and amazed -- María had come a long way since she first joined our girls group six weeks before. She was the girl who smiled but rarely spoke, and even then rarely in Spanish -- only in the indigenous language Guarani. And now she popped by just to hang out. But something struck me as odd, as I glanced at my pizza in the oven and then at my watch. The time was 11:50. Almost lunch time... the holy hour of the only meal that really gets eaten in Paraguay.
¨María, what time do you have to be home?¨ I asked her.
¨No, my mother isn't cooking today,¨ she replied.
¨What?¨ I was shocked. Even the poorest families I know eat something for lunch, even if not very much. ¨Aren't you hungry?¨
She told me no, she'd had tortillas at 5AM.
It wasn't a question of feeling generous and tossing a dollar at a beggar child on the street. This was María. My María. Her immune system, her literacy rate, her confidence level and her general growth rate all depended on me in that moment. I shared my pizza with her.
She ate every bite. Even the green pepper and onions sprinkled on top... and you would be hard-pressed to find a child where I live who would eat a vegetable you can see. Then she asked me what I was making for dinner.
I immediately felt thrown into a moral crisis. All my guilt -- for leaving site, for being too chuchi, for not sharing and for being unsustainable -- charged forth dressed for battle.
I can't feed her every single meal. I can't be responsible for this little girl.
Stop being selfish. Yes, you can. You make more than enough on your Peace Corps stipend to feed another person.
But what about her eight siblings? What about her neighbors? What about everyone else who is falling through the cracks? How can I do this just for her?
You took a vacation to Peru. You did that instead of feeding a little girl.
It's not even sustainable to buy her food, I should try to develop the soup kitchen at our local community center instead.
You know that is unrealistic. The soup kitchen is open for three lunches a week and is already a strain for the women who cook. You are going to stand back and watch this little girl fall.
All this seems to me a pretty depressing lose-lose situation. Either I ignore the hunger of a child, or I create jealousy amongst her peers. And either way she will be hungry again next year after I go back to America. How do I cope with all of this burden? How do any of us cope?
I feel like the go-to answer is to try drop it behind somewhere on our two year journey. Just throw that heavy sack in the arroyo. Remind yourself of the hours of work you put into that project, the tears you shed as you squatted homesick in your host family's overflowing latrine. The opportunity cost of doing the Peace Corps, all those tens of thousands of dollars you like to think you could have made if you were employed these two years in the U.S.
But unfortunately, that reasoning doesn´t do it for me. Nor does the argument that extreme wealth needs to exist because people need a goal to strive for. I mean, what would María say if I told her I'm going to the Lady Gaga concert in Asuncion so that she can strive to have enough money to do that too some day? She doesn't get enough to eat, can't read and lives in a wooden shack with no water. It´s not about how hard she tries. And I don't really believe the people who say that helping others is not morally obligatory, just a praiseworthy act. Because in that case, allowing that person to drown in the lake would be the norm. And I don't think that is the world we live in.
The only comfort I can give myself -- for now, while I continue to search for the answers -- is the last place I would ever expect to find consolation. Peace Corps goal 3. Something that a year ago didn´t really seem part of my PC experience, just something that naturally happens when you go home and don´t have anything exciting to talk about anymore.
Peace Corps goal 3: To bring our life drinking terere back to the United States of America.
I went back to the States in July and was not very astonished to hear a lot of people say narrow-minded things about global poverty. I'm not sure what bothered me most: the couple who thought they understood my community in Paraguay because they took a vacation to China once or the students who didn't care because we have to help our fellow Jews first. The old man who asked me why Paraguay's own government couldn't provide for them? Or the girl who asked me if I cook or order takeout in my site?
It wasn't until a random Facebook chat that I found a sort of hope in these tiring, often repetitive conversations. I went to elementary school with Adam, wasn´t friends with him, and hadn't talked to him in at least five years. Now he chatted me to say that what I am doing is "an inspiration" to him.
It wasn't his compliments that encouraged me nor was it his reminder of opportunity cost of doing the Peace Corps. It was just the simple fact that someone I barely know said that my actions give him inspiration to give up money to do something he loves. That he wanted to have coffee to hear about what I've learned in my experience. I couldn't read the word "inspiration" with a straight face, but his openness to hear from my experience made me see the value in Goal 3. I have -- we have -- a real opportunity to help others back home understand the amazing culture of Paraguay, the complicated nature of development work, and the lives of those who fight for their communities.
For me, this is the solution to the heap-ton of Peace Corps guilt clamping down on my shoulders.
Goal 3: to help people back home understand human need and realize their responsibility to throw that lifesaver. In a sustainable way, of course. Because the guilt that we are allowing people to drown is not mine. It is ours.