I have been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda for about nine months now. It feels as though I have passed an eternity here, but it also feels like the blink of an eye.
From fishermen to village families to bishops and old village grandmothers, I have had the chance to build so many relationships here and hear so many stories. The best part is I’m just getting started!
I haven’t posted in a while, and as I am traveling to America for two weeks to go to my sister’s wedding, I felt it was a good time for a short reflection, possibly an unusual one.
I could reflect on the projects and teaching and studying I have completed in this country. The positive relationships, the delicious meals I’ve had sitting with close friends in my house. I could talk about my new kitten Cho Shekinah Akazungu. I could talk about 5am sunrise wake ups doing insanity with other teachers, early moto rides, quick glimpses of joy and frustration, people asking me to pay their school fees, days when I felt disappointed and defeated, discussions about cows with my priests, teaching harmony to primary students, diving into new projects and grants that I never imagined I would get the chance to be involved in, or eating rabbit heads. I could go on for hours, maybe days.
The last nine months have been a a roller coaster for me, after leaving a community and a church I loved, and diving into new layers of isolation, as well as a complete change in life circumstances.
It has been more of a mental battle than a physical one.
I think one of the biggest traps for me as a volunteer are two questions: “Am I good enough?” and “Am I good compared to others?”
Those questions have surfaced in my mind countless times. And they have pushed me towards burn out, and a turbulent, anxious mind.
If you’re reading this, I strongly encourage you to lay down the comparisons, regardless of what your faith or worldview might be and regardless of whether you are a Peace Corps volunteer.
My vision for my service is changing.
It is slowly transforming from a race to do as many things as possible to a simple marathon of loving well. And that includes loving myself.
Working in service is an amazing and life-giving profession, but it is also one of the most dangerous, especially when it involves isolation and perfectionism.
But the biggest challenge I have faced in this journey is simply fear.
It started when I left—fear of failure, fear of not integrating into the country, fear of not being able to teach. Those fears became other fears—that’s the funny thing about fear.
If it wasn’t fear of not teaching well, it was fear of not being in my community enough, or fear of fear itself.
“But what if I let people down?”
Once the fear grew from a sapling into a full massive tree trunk, I realized I was afraid of even more things—fear of not having a good reputation, fear of not being a good volunteer, even fear of losing my faith and peace I had been walking in before coming to Rwanda.
This continued into many avenues all centered around fears, some small and some extreme and disturbing.
I write this as a warning as well as an encouragement for those experiencing fear and anxiety of any kind.
I’m no expert in this subject. But I realized, for me, fear is partly a choice, partly existing from a lack of focus on good things. I started to focus on God’s promises and the unconditional love that is offered through Jesus, and that seemed to give fear the old one-two punch.
Fear feeds off the amount of food we give it. And it strengthens itself when we flounder and make it the focus of our minds.
JK Rowling wrote some of the most incredible literature and imagery when she created the characters of dementors and boggarts in Harry Potter.
These dementors embodied fear, as did Boggarts. They forced fears and the worst memories and scenarios into people’s minds.
Harry Potter learned to not simply defend himself against these creatures. He learned to attack them.
I’m learning to get off the defensive, and get on the offensive.
Take a breath (or three).
Here’s a practical start I’ve found helpful: Choose 10 of your favorite memories and focus on those and remind yourself who you are based off those memories rather than the fear that creeps into your present life.
Then, meditate and pray.
If you believe Jesus is real, or are searching for him, try saying the Lord’s Prayer slowly (one word every few deep breaths) and sit in silence, simply listening to your breath and focusing one word at a time.
If not, simply try to take some time to sit, and stop creating measurements of success. The more we do these simple meditations, and the less we look to others and to our work or service for meaning in life, the more peace will fill the dried cracks that have spread through our parched souls from days and months of worry and self-criticism.
To put it in swirly and eloquent prose: The idea that fear and comparison are stronger than you, is a bunch of BS.
Talk to someone about your fears and anxieties. Let the light wash over the darkest fears you may have.
Shadows of objects are always bigger than they actually are.
No one is alone, and the more light and love we welcome in, the fewer patches of darkness will exist to hide the truth about us and about this beautiful life.
That has been my experience, and I’m so excited for another year and a half at least of living in this beautiful country, leading with love and not by fear.
If you are having one of those months (or years) with fear, feel free to even shoot me a message and I would love to pray for you! I know what it’s like. Love is bigger.
Keep your love on people.