In three days, I will leave Oregon and travel to Philadelphia. There, I will meet the other Peace Corps Volunteers who are part of the 32nd cohort to volunteer in Moldova. Two days later, I will leave the US for 27 months. I have found that the number of people asking me if I “feel ready” increases proportionally as the departure date draws nearer. Oddly enough, it doesn’t really help my existing anxiety.
How does one become completely “ready” to embark on the next chapter of their life? I’m sure my fellow recent alumni are feeling something very similar manifesting itself in various ways. For me, I hear the familiar dissonant chorus of improbable and unhelpful (but no less terrifying) “what ifs” ringing in my ears as I try to fall asleep. What if my introverted nature prevents me from making friends? What if I fail the language test? What if I’m actually horrible at teaching? I like to pretend that if I was joining the Peace Corps later, I would feel more confident in my professional skills. I like to pretend that if I had spent a summer abroad while in college, I would feel more calm about adapting to another culture. I like to pretend that if anything in my life was different, my chorus of “what ifs” would learn to harmonize their voices into more supportive phrases, or at least learn to control their volume. But the rational side of me knows that no amount of experience or education could ever truly prepare me for the next big step in life.
No matter how hard I try to follow the Peace Corps advice not to have expectations, I’ve learned that expectations are some of the most stubborn and territorial creatures I have ever encountered. We have all been hurt by expectations; sometimes because they are set too high, and sometimes just because they had to be set so low. Expectations for ourselves can sometimes be the most painful of all. Despite our instincts to protect ourselves by suppressing expectations, we nevertheless allow them to reappear because occasionally something will exceed our expectations. These moments give us just enough hope and excitement to last us until the next time it happens. Knowing all of this, I’m still trying very hard not to have expectations. Indeed, I’m finding it relatively easy to put aside expectations about my host family, about PC staff, and about my future school. However, just as expectations about ourselves can be the most painful, they are also the most difficult to shake. These stubborn expectations, like the questions about my “readiness,” do not exactly relieve my anxieties.
Amidst the whirlwind of all the questions from well-wishers, my “what ifs,” and my constant battle with expectations, I do have one thing that brings me peace. In my most panicked moments, I remember something that a career advisor from Reed told me this past August. For those of you who do not know me well, I like to plan WELL ahead, and I like to feel like I am in control of all situations that have a big impact on my life. Unfortunately, I am also cursed with chronic indecision. I was thus very stressed when I couldn’t decide what I wanted regarding post-Reed life. At the end of the meeting, the advisor said: “It sounds like you’re worried about making a wrong decision. But this is the most malleable time in your whole life. No matter what you decide to do—whether it is finding a job, going to graduate school, or going home to recharge—you cannot make a wrong decision. If you find a job, you will gain professional skills. If you go to graduate school, you will gain knowledge. If you go home, you will gain energy and prospective. All of these are important, but none of them are wrong. No matter what, you gain something. Enjoy the fact that you can’t be wrong.”
To a perfectionist like me, this sounded impossible. How could I trust myself not to be wrong about what I would do for the rest of my life? Yet as I listened, I felt a calm come over me, followed by excitement. I could not make a wrong decision. I would gain something from anything I wanted to do. As I left the advisor’s office, I no longer felt overwhelmed by the entire world of possibilities that awaited me after graduation. I could begin my senior year without expectations and without a plan. For once, that was okay; I could not make a wrong decision.
In these last few weeks filled with nervousness and second-guessing, this is the thought that is helping me to feel “ready”: no matter what, I have made a decision that cannot be wrong for me. It will be extremely difficult. I will have to adapt. At some point I may even decide that it’s not for me. But at least I would have gained something. I am going to learn a new language. I am going to live in a new place. I am going to meet new people. I am going to experience a different culture. I am going to learn how to make better lesson plans and run a classroom. I am going to gain all of these amazing skills, and I am excited for what I will gain. But I am more excited that I am going to be able to share something in return. I am going to be able to share my experiences with a host family. I am going to be able to share my skills with another teacher. I am going to be able to share my knowledge with students. I am going to be able to share what I’ve learned back home, to all of you.
I could not make a wrong decision. I did make a decision. And that thought, above all else, makes me feel “ready.”