Before you read my response, I encourage you to read the original article here on Huffington Post. Read it, analyze it, and draw your own conclusions before you read what I have to say about it. I have shared it on my Twitter feed, but in case you missed it, please see the link above.
Why do people join the Peace Corps?
“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.” –From the Huffington Post article
I ask myself and others why they want to join such an organization. The responses vary quite a bit: Some because they want to serve their country (civil service), others because they want to help promote positive change around the world, and others because they weren’t quite sure what to do with their lives and were seeking a transformative experience. Not one person I have spoken to said that guilt motivated them to come out here. At least, they never admitted to such a thing.
I’m not sure why people feel guilty for having things. We don’t get to choose where and into what circumstances we are born: We are simply born into them. Wherever we are, we seek to make the best of our situation. There was a metaphor about watching others drown that the article used that I found particularly interesting.
“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.” -From the Huffington Post article
The assumption I infer from the article is that we, the privileged, are endowed with this power to help the poor, who are helpless. In the metaphor, the helplessness is symbolized by drowning. I think working with this kind of assumption before going abroad with the Peace Corps is a huge disservice to the community you are going to serve. These people are not helpless; they are working hard to improve their lives and feed their families. Volunteers are sent out in order to help them in their quest for a comfortable, sustainable existence. We are partners working together to reach that goal. We learn from one another in the process.
I take issue with the idea that we have this amazing power to pull people out of poverty as well. There are millions in poverty in America. We have a slue of social and economic issues all of our own to deal with. Our nation is not perfect, and we do not have all the answers. I think what Peace Corps does is admirable: We try to foster a mutual understanding so that collaboration on a local level makes larger impacts on the nation as a whole. We start working with the people in the grassroots tradition. Everyone involved in projects, be they host country nationals or volunteers, has a desire to help.
When I came to Mongolia, my expectations were tempered by realism and experience: I was coming to this country to teach English and assist teachers in improving their language skills and pedagogical practices. I did not have the idea in my mind that I was coming out here to save the world, save Mongolia, or save my community from their supposed poverty. I have lived and worked abroad before: I knew what was going to happen, but many coming into the Peace Corps don’t. They are fresh out of college, or they haven’t had an experience yet of what it means to live and work in a developing part of the world. They have no point of reference from which to base their expectations. They are quite idealistic, and this is fine. Idealism is good: It produces fresh ideas and motivates people to do some truly wonderful things. When your experience challenges those idealistic tendencies, that’s when people start to lose faith. That’s when this “Peace Corps guilt” starts to dawn on people.
I say this to Ms. Katcoff and others who are feeling this guilt: Don’t. You have no reason to. You are not a superhuman out to save the impoverished and destitute. You are normal people with the desire to help others around the world. Your community members are not helpless souls drowning: they are strong, resourceful people who are finding ways to make a living. Many want to improve their communities, which is why they requested your assistance. They did not request your divine intervention; only your assistance. You are there to work with them. Sometimes, your work is successful. Many times, it will not be successful. That is the reality that you face, but you are not a person drowning in the lake, either. You are strong and resourceful; use your skills and the skills of those around you to try to make any sort of positive change you can. Size does not matter, because every little bit helps. Every little bit.
I close with a quote from the poet Rumi, whose words have echoed throughout time and resonate still today.
Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.
The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t (Prose)
30 thoughts on “A Response to “Peace Corps Guilt””
Thank you, Adam! That article was nagging at me, too. Several of our PC/M peers had posted it saying “worth reading” or “interesting” but that didn’t address whether they shared the author’s motivations.
I’ve been buggered by that article for the exact reasons you point out: guilt is neither my reason nor anyone whom I asked, poverty and America are far from mutually exclusive, and going into a community asking “what can I change?” precludes one from asking “what can I learn?”
The very premise of feeling guilty rang as selfish to me… she joined to ease her guilt, to make herself feel better. And, the drowning metaphor reeked of heart-strings-pulling exaggeration. Wow, maybe this sounds harsh, and I don’t mean to hijack your post, but I am taking advantage because what you wrote resonated with my own gut-reaction.
No worries! I want my blog to be open for conversations. I’m glad you enjoyed what I had to say.
That Huffington Post article bothered me too, and you articulated well several reasons why. It assumes that people living in developing countries can’t help themselves, which is obviously untrue, patronizing and offensive! I didn’t join PC because of guilt, and I never feel guilty while I’m here; PCVs need to take care of themselves, too. Everyone is entitled to join for their own reasons, and it feels good to contribute to a community. What is there to feel bad about? It seems she is taking her white liberal guilt to an unhealthy, extreme level. I think your response shows that her motivation is probably the exception instead of the rule.
Indeed. I just hope that people who do feel guilt stop beating themselves up; it’s not good for anyone if they do that. I’m glad to hear I wasn’t alone in wondering why her feelings felt so remote and foreign in contrast to my own experiences.
I posted the article on my facebook wall and I still think that its an article worth reading and thinking about. I disagree with the idea of joining PC for guilt, but I think that the article is valuable in suggesting that what we are doing is valuable despite the failures we meet. I know many of us often wonder if what we are doing has value and I think the authors take on that is important. even if we fail at our projects and no basketball courts are built and no children improve their english, the valuable thing is that we are here working together with people who appreciate that and understand that we are trying to help. I recently spoke to a hispanic doctor friend of mine who does work in central america. we were talking about this article and she told me that many people she talks to their said its important just to know that we are there trying to help. in the same regard, the things we are learning about being in host countries are valuable whether we succeed in our projects or not, and i think that is a valuable point that the author made. for me anyway, that was the main point, despite the title being about guilt.
Hey Justin! Thanks for the reply. I think this article is a great starting point to get a conversation going about Peace Corps as well. I didn’t really get the same message from the article, however. I think she started to go down that path, but then took an abrupt detour back to guilt:
“I feel like the go-to answer is to try drop it [guilt] 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.”
Her writing is a bit muddled here for me, but I gathered that she needs to hold onto the guilt, and that the “hours of work” and the “tears shed” weren’t enough for her, and that the opportunity cost argument fails to move her as well. She even concludes with the guilt angle:
“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.”
Her whole article is wrapped in this strange idea of guilt and privilege, which I think hinders the positivity she may be trying to convey from her own experience. I’m glad to hear that you were able to get something positive out of her writing; I’m sure she would be very happy to hear that from a fellow volunteer. I would be very interested to hear from her personally (I posted this entry on her article; she responded to the volunteer in Cambodia, so maybe she will respond to me as well), or to see her write a follow-up on what the lessons were that she learned in her service. I applaud her for putting herself out there. It’s always interesting to see someone else’s experience. I may disagree with her approach philosophically, but I think her heart is in the right place.
“Her whole article is wrapped in this strange idea of guilt and privilege, which I think hinders the positivity she may be trying to convey from her own experience.”
I agree, and I, too, applaud her effort to engage those offering criticism (and support.)
Sorry it took me so long to get back to you — I had a truly crazy week. Your take on the drowning thing actually threw me off. I did not mean to portray the poor as one-dimensional helpless victims. I hope that is not what people took out of the article.
But you did make me reflect a little, and here is my response.
If you will recall, the drowning ´metaphor´ is not mine, but an example used by the well-known ethicist Peter Singer. And he does not use it as a literary device, but to ask a question about morality. Most people would unquestionably sacrifice a $1000 suit to save a child drowning in a lake. But would most people donate $1000 to save a dying child rather than buying the suit? Probably not, says Singer, even though these two situations are morally equivalent. In either situation, a child´s life is at risk. In either situation, we can save it or we cannot.
So is it appropriate for Singer to use this example? Absolutely. He is not saying that all poor people are equivalent to drowning victims. He is saying that dying poor people are equivalent to drowning victims. He refers more to third world poverty, but when I say in my article that people are dying all over the world, I mean all over the world. I don´t mean all over the world except for America. And I agree with Singer that the privileged can do a lot to alleviate the burden of global poverty by realizing their moral responsability to the world.
Okay, so the next question I asked myself as a result of your blog: was it okay for me to compare María to a drowning victim? She is malnourished and illiterate, but she is not dying. Uh oh. Does that lower the moral responsability to help her? Maybe it does.
But then again, there have been studies that show that 13-65% of child deaths in third world countries are caused by mild to moderate malnutrition. Not extreme malnutrition! Just mild to moderate is enough to make the child succumb to illness. María´s brother died at age 7 from illness. Some of her other siblings never made it past infanthood. A girl in her class died last summer after her poorly-constructed house fell on her during a windy storm. My own neighbor was stabbed by her husband in front of their two-year-old daughter. My contact in site Don Genaro — the most amazing, hardworking man I know — has almost cried in front of me when he admitted to me that his family had been living on only flour and eggs for a whole week. And another time, when he explained to me that his wife has been extremely ill for 8 years but the doctor said that it´s because she needs to eat! And having suffered a terrible illness himself a couple years back, he cannot do the manual labor to provide for her and his 11 children. Yes, Don Genaro is strong and resourceful — he is the one who started the soup kitchen in my community. But he is also in pain. I feel his pain as well, because he is like a father to me in site. It is hard to see him suffer. But I am not pitying him. I am caring.
So back to María. What are María´s chances? It is impossible to tell. Do we have the same moral responsability to help her if she´s not going to definitely die? Or is to help someone who is suffering equally morally imperative? (ex. the girl in my youth group who had been raped for her older brother since age 12, the boy in my group who last week became blind in one eye because he couldn´t afford to go to the eye doctor. After two weeks, he finally asked me for help. It was too late.)
Yes, I still feel guilty throughout everything. But no — and tell your friends — I do not think that it is a selfish feeling. How is it selfish to have empathy for the suffering of others? I can´t think of anything less selfish! I think the root of our difference is that you think guilt is a useless emotion because we can´t do anything anyway, whereas I think we absolutely can. Call me idealistic, I believe that the huge inequality of wealth is the culprit. And I do think that a difference can be made. Pay your workers a fair wage. Buy Fair Trade. Invest in manufacturing in Paraguay so it doesn´t have to import so many goods. Equip big cities like mine with public eye doctors and women´s shelters so women like my neighbor and the girl in my youth group have a place to go. And of course, feed the children with programs like free lunch at school. I won´t even start on education and traffic safety.
I entered the PC feeling like it would shake me out of my idealism, but if anything I am now more idealistic about aid. Why? Because I see firsthand the work of a Canadian funded Paraguayan-run NGO. It is far from perfect but it is doing some great work while working with about 1000 poor children in my city with a mind toward sustainability. It started my community center 7-years-ago and now it is weening itself away. The community no longer receives foreign funds. They clean, fundraise, run the soup kitchen, and do the decision-making themselves. There is one teacher paid by donations from the local supermarket, the parents do the rest and are slowly taking on the last responsabilities. Truly amazing stuff.
One more thing — I understand why some PCVs are getting so defensive about the guilt thing. I never claimed to be speaking for all PCVs around the world. I was relating my own experience and the reality of being a volunteer in Paraguay. And guilt does seem to be a shared feeling among us volunteers here. It comes up very often in conversation, ¨I feel so guilty, I really shouldn´t be out of site…¨ ¨I feel so bad, I really shouldn´t pay the $25 to install hot water…¨ or ¨i shouldnt have done it, so unsustainable, I just paid out of pocket to install running water in my school¨ etc. The PCV Paraguay reaction was that my article was spot-on to our experience.
So assuming that there is no difference between the groups sent to Mongolia and the groups sent to Paraguay, what do you think the difference is? My thought is that maybe we are experiencing a different type of poverty. Maybe in other countries the issue is more about access. Communities do not have running water, electricity, Internet, peaches, etc. because they are remote but the people are living like they have for years. Whereas here in my community on the fringe of one of the biggest cities of Paraguay (110,000) we have all of these things for the people able to pay for them. The issue isn´t access, or a question of living simply, it´s poverty. It´s unemployment, hunger, abuse, accidents, and illness. And PCVs like me seem to always have Singer´s example in our faces as we decide what to do with our living allowances. We can save up money and put in hot water before the winter. We can buy the chuchi chocolate from America. We can splurge on apples. But we can´t seem to shake away the faces of our neighbor children when we do.
I don´t think that it is good for me to beat myself up everytime one of my students gets raped or goes blind in one eye, but I still feel the guilt and like I said, I don´t want to drop it in the river. I think it´s a good thing to be sensitive to the pain of others and I don´t want to lose that. I´m not saying that everyone should feel guilty like I do. But I do think that everyone should care when thinking about the suffering of others.
correction — I dont understand.
First, thanks for taking the time to read my article and to write a response. I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to speak to me about your (and my) ideas. I figured I’d reply to just this one comment to address the issues all of them.
From the first comment:
Thank you for clarifying the example from Singer. Rather than having all poor people lumped together, it specifically addresses those without resources whose lives are in danger of ending because of their poorness, correct? I thought the idea was that all of those in poverty were helpless, and that we should be guilt-driven into helping them. What I got from the article’s introductory paragraphs, and subsequent elaboration, was that you felt guilt for being a “have” with things (IE: Disney World vacations, iPods, etc.), which was your main motivation for helping others, not that you saw how poverty made their lives incredibly challenging and difficult. I am glad to hear this is not what you meant to convey. If you initially started out with the guilt of having, but it transformed into empathy (not the same thing as guilt!), I think you should have written more about that in the article. Empathy is a far more compelling reason, I feel, than guilt when it comes to helping others. I mean, this single comment you wrote moved me greatly; it showed a transformation, a progression towards where you are now. I think it showed great insight into the hardships you have faced in Paraguay more so than what the original article conveyed.
I do disagree with your assumption about where I stand ideologically. If I didn’t think I could do anything, I certainly would not have joined the Peace Corps. I stated at the end of my entry “You are strong and resourceful; use your skills and the skills of those around you to try to make any sort of positive change you can. Size does not matter, because every little bit helps. Every little bit.” I don’t see how that implies that I feel we can’t do anything. I believe that we can (“make any sort of positive change that you can”), but that we get so hung-up on the scope that we forget to step back and take a look at the larger picture of our service (“every little bit helps”). I apologize if I didn’t make that point clear in my conclusion; it was my intention to have clarity there.
I think our differences may come from the distinction between guilt and empathy. In my response, to be fair, I make no mention of empathy whatsoever. Your comment has spurred new thoughts for me. Guilt is the feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation, whereas empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. If you feel that you are obligated to help these people, that is different from understanding and sharing their feelings. Obligation is duty or a course of action that someone is legally or morally bound to do. Morality deals with what is right and wrong with behavior, and the good and bad of human character. There is nothing about understanding those you have a moral responsibility to serve in those definitions, however (taken from the dictionary application on my laptop). I think that’s why I find using guilt as a motivator to be misleading: People can understand duty, and right and wrong, without feeling empathic. Sympathetic, perhaps, but not necessarily empathetic. I’m not saying that you don’t feel empathy, or that your sense of obligation is without understanding. I’m saying that empathy, in my opinion, is what we truly need to fix problems, not guilt.
Is it realistic to have everyone empathize with one another? Heavens, no! That’s why you start small. It’s like I said before: “We try to foster a mutual understanding so that collaboration on a local level makes larger impacts on the nation as a whole.” That works for both in our countries of service and back in America. Every little bit helps.
From the second comment:
I realize that you aren’t speaking for all volunteers; you can only speak for yourself, because even among those in the same country, different volunteers can all have radically different experiences. Please realize that I’m not trying to speak for all volunteers, either. I can only speak for myself and my experiences. I replied so that others could see another side of the Peace Corps story from the other side of the world (quite literally). I’m not trying to discredit nor trivialize your experience. That being said, our experiences are more similar than you may think.
I live in the second largest city in Mongolia, with a sizable population of 100,000 people (second/third only to the capital, which houses half of Mongolia’s population). We have internet, water, and electricity. All of the modern conveniences are here, yet only about 25,000 people live in the city proper where all of these items are. The rest live in the ger districts, which are large collections of wooden houses and circle tents (gers) where people live without running water, and burn coal for heat. The unemployment rate is 40%, alcohol abuse is rampant, and the Mongolian people must deal with frigid winters and sandstorms in Spring. To say that poverty isn’t here would be a great folly, even if one could not see it at first glance, and too often, the first glance is all people will see. I think that might be where the difference is: The poverty is not in your face like it sounds like it is in Paraguay.
Mongolia is a strange case, however, because it is experiencing a mining boom. The Oyu Tolgoi mine in the Gobi is going to reshape this nation’s economy drastically, but concerns over corruption and distribution of wealth (economic disparity) have caused many to worry that Mongolia will fall prey to the Dutch Disease. Concerns in the government over foreign investors and mining companies essentially mining Mongolia barren without the country seeing any profit has caused problems with foreign investment that is needed to get many projects underway. Poor infrastructure and an absent refinery industry means that Mongolia earns less when it exports its unrefined minerals. The liquidity of many Mongolian banks has people nervous about banks becoming insolvent. With rapid development and an influx of wealth comes a wealth of problems for the Mongolian people to address. It’s a fascinating and somewhat historic time to be here, suffice to say.
I agree that others should care when thinking about the suffering of others, but we must be realistic here. You can’t save everyone everywhere, and you’ll drive yourself insane if you shoulder that burden. You need to break it down into small pieces: Start with small changes that are realistic in your community and work from there. Taking time for yourself doesn’t mean that you’re shunning your moral obligations, especially if you’re running on empty. If guilt is a good motivator for you, then you can use it to make something positive, but don’t let it consume you.
Hi Adam (and Esther),
Just wanted to thank you for your discussion and for sussing out the distinction between guilt and empathy. I think that’s a central point underlying many of the smaller discussions that have occurred in the comments of Esther’s post. Guilt is certainly related to empathy, but I see them as fundamentally different. I feel that while both emotions are experienced internally, empathy is externally focused on others’ experience, needs, and emotions and guilt is internally focused on the feeling of having failed to act under one’s moral obligation.
I know that guilt is not uncommon for volunteers, but I would ask if that guilt is really based on a failure to fulfill a moral obligation. If so, isn’t it largely self-serving of the volunteer to devote energy to that guilt rather than simply changing the behavior? (ie. If it’s really wrong, don’t buy chocolate or leave site so much.)
If the guilt is *not* based on a moral failure, but is really based on the general inability to help, I don’t see the guilt as productive (if we’re unable to “help” — and I would agree with Adam that our ability to help is limited, due to limited resources (time/money) and the structural complexities of the poverty — how can we feel guilty for not doing so?).
In this case, focusing on guilt may mask a larger and more important discussion: namely, the complexities and limitations of intercultural “charity work”. (I think guilt is intuitive to privileged people in the US; the how’s and why’s of the relative inefficacy of “development aid” is not, and deserves much more “Third Goal” airtime.)
Guilt may be productive in the sense that it motivates some people to involve themselves in social work, but I feel that volunteers would do better to focus on promoting empathy and understanding of the peoples we work with. “Poverty guilt” largely perpetuates misguided stereotypes about people living in poverty (ie. they are helpless and will definitely be better off with our “help”) and about volunteer work or aid in general (ie. more money = less problems; any person with a college degree can be helpful to people in poverty…)
I’d be curious to hear what you think. Thanks for the lively discussion.
Sorry! One more question: If you don’t want everyone to feel guilty like you do, why did you end your piece with “Because the guilt that we are allowing people to drown is not mine. It is ours?”
I wondered that as well.
Thanks for your suggestions about future articles. I wasn´t planning on writing again soon, just because I only want to write if I have something to say. But maybe I always have something to say and just need to put the pen to the paper.
And hmm that´s a good question, Adam. I am honestly still processing my take on it.
I think that ´guilt´ for me is synonymous with ´moral failure´ And I think that we all need to realize that 1) we have a moral responsability to those who are suffering, and 2) we are failing it. And in that way, we are doing something wrong and should collectively feel guilty about that. My empathy is tied up in my guilt. I feel guilty because I care. The more I care, the more I feel guilty that I am not doing enough to help the people I care about.
But maybe those people who are already doing their part can and should feel guilt-free. But then you have to ask yourself, how much is ´one´s part´? This whole conversation reminds me of Schindler´s List. Schindler saved 1000 Jews in the Holocaust by pretending he needed them to work his factory. But the movie ends not on a happy note but with Schindler crying and torturing himself. ¨Why didn´t I save 1001 Jews? Why didn´t I ask for one more?¨
I think that differentiating between the people we’re serving and a drowning child is really important. The people we’re helping are not at death’s doorstep. As you mention, Adam: these people are not helpless. I have met some remarkably strong, intelligent, capable people here. I think that anyone who joins the Peace Corps thinking he or she will fly into a community and awe everyone with his or her strength, intelligence, and resources is in for a very humbling experience.
And you know, sometimes I wonder who’s really drowning.
Some Peace Corps Volunteers join without knowing who they are or what they want from life. Maybe they’re not drowning, but psychologically/spiritually, they’re treading water. For them–and I think, for all of us–our community guides us to greater self-awareness and understanding. I admit: I’ve recommended joining Peace Corp to some people, not necessarily because they will help the world, but because the world will help them.
That being said, I do occasionally feel a tinge of guilt with my electronics and food from home. I try not to let that motivate me, because I cannot see how anything good can come of such negative emotions. I want to help and I want to learn–and yes, I’m an idealist who wants to make the world a better place. But I don’t pity the people in my community. I truly, whole-heartedly, unabashedly admire them.
When I was at an impressionable age, my older sister said to me, “guilt is a useless emotion” and I have hung onto that advice ever since. Perhaps I gave her words more weight than they deserved; at the very least, I could have pondered a little more to reach my own conclusion. Regardless, I can’t be sure whether I was ever wracked with guilt prior to that conversation, but I am certain I haven’t been since.
My family grew up poor—not in poverty—but poor: single mom, stints on welfare, 7 different schools by the time I got to 5th grade (I’m still not entirely sure why being poor correlates to moving so often, but it’s not unique to me). The youngest of four, I was the first to go to college, have a job with benefits, and get a passport. These are things that the privileged take for granted but in my family they were HUGE accomplishments. I even paid off my student loans in about 6 years, through aggressive budgeting, because the idea of debt was terrifying. I have never felt guilty about what I have, relative to other Americans, because I feel I have earned it by playing the game and having a little luck. Now, relative to people of less developed countries, over that I had no control. I am absolutely aware of my privilege but for me that doesn’t equate to guilt. And for me, the word “guilt” was the immediate sticking point of your story, Esther.
As a Communications major, I should have known better. What we put into a word isn’t necessarily what someone else gets out of it, and what I got out of your use of the word “guilt” isn’t necessarily what you put into it. Thank you for responding with such detail. Though I may still have a bias against the word “guilt,” it helps to know that for you the word includes empathy.
But, what I am most guilty of in this exchange is allowing your use of the word “guilt” (with my given definition) to stand as your sole reason for joining the Peace Corps. In fact, since my very first blog was about how difficult it is to answer that “why did you join?” question, I’ve no reason to believe that your full reason isn’t as multi-faceted as my own, and the other Volunteers I’ve asked. Likewise, I was the one who used the word “selfish,” which I’d very much like to take back since it was based on my definition of the word guilt. That said, in hindsight, I think some of my own reasons (to learn a language, to live abroad) could be seen as selfish. This is the risk we take by putting our thoughts out there to be examined by those who don’t know us.
Like Adam, I also don’t want to dismiss your experiences. And also like Adam, in my 5 months in Mongolia I’ve seen none of the hardships of poverty that you describe from Paraguay. Honestly, I can’t say that I want to see such things first hand. Yet, I have to believe that mine is an authentic Peace Corps experience even without such destitution, just as I have to believe that my Mongolia experience is authentic despite not living in a ger.
I just reread your article and what struck me this time was the reference to the Third Goal. I think we (PCVs) often think of that exclusively in terms of us talking to the folks back home, but this conversation shows the opportunity to share with and learn from one another.
I think guilt can be a good and useful emotion. One of the main reasons I joined Peace Corps was because of guilt. I have been very privileged throughout my life. After receiving a good education paid for by my parents, I was able to get a great, high paying job. I worked as a tax accountant in a beautiful part of Colorado for 4 years. Life was great! I had a comfortable career where I enjoyed the work and felt challenged. I had a salary that allowed me to travel, ski, mountain bike, and live in a resort town with an incredibly high standard of living. Something was bothering me though. Guilt. Here I was advising some of the wealthiest people of one of the wealthiest nations in the world on how they could creatively avoid some or all of their obligation to pay their fair share of taxes. Tax avoidance not tax evasion – legal but is it moral? If I had been given all the opportunity in the world, is this how I should be spending my time?
Adam says “We don’t get to choose where and into what circumstances we are born: We are simply born into them.” I think this still justifies guilt. “Guilt is the feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation.” We as individuals didn’t do anything wrong by being born that should give us this guilt, but the way our society is structured, gives incredible privilege to some and poverty with little hope to others. I would feel differently if everyone had an even shot at working hard and making a great life for themselves, but that’s just not true. Since its much harder or sometimes impossible for some people to make a descent life for themselves based on the situation they were born into, I think the more fortunate people should feel some guilt about how their life was made so easy. Since I was fortunate enough to be born into a situation with a lot more opportunity available to me, I should try to do something to help those that were born into less fortunate situations since its possible for me to do this and still live a great life. And guilt for a lot of people might be the only motivating tool out there that will get them to do this.
Now obviously there were other options I could have taken for my situation. I could have found another job that I felt would allow me to contribute to society more constructively. And also, to be fair, I joined the Peace Corps for many other selfish reasons as well, such as travel, self-growth, and learning another language. But I still think that in my case guilt, although not an enjoyable feeling to have, has been a constructive motivator for me to try to do something better with my life than just living it up in a ski town…at least for 27 months.
Chris — so you went from advising people on how to evade taxes to…the Peace Corps? Guilt is what made you do this? I don’t mean to be rude, but I feel like I am missing something here. Before making the Peace Corps choice, did you spend some time in the United States trying to rectify your behavior?
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: disadvantaged people don’t need your guilt; I feel like your type of guilt will lead quickly to paternalism.
I don´t think it is fair to pass negative judgement on Chris, FutureDiplomat. For most people, a job is a job. I wonder how many tax accountants feel a moral qualm while working with their clients. Instead of judging him for taking the job in the first place or not making an immediate career change, I think we should applaud his initiative to leave his job to find something that contributes a little more to society.
And as for your second comment, I wholeheartedly disagree. My joven Carlos who is now blind in one eye because he couldn´t afford $15 to go to the eyedoctor doesn´t need us to feel morally responsable for him? He doesn´t need us to think of him while spending however much money this season on materialistic goods?
The problem with development is that people try to create change without understanding the issues and without working together with the stakeholders. That´s when development resembles colonialism. But the problem has NOTHING to do with feeling a moral responsability to those we collectively have left behind.
I am not judging him for having the job, I am just confused as to how one makes a sudden leap from helping rich people get richer to…Peace Corps. Did he look below him, during that great leap, to see how his life has effected others in the United States?
I am not stating it’s morally right or wrong to take this path; I am highly interested in learning about his “guilt.”. If he feels guilty about what he’s done and the privilege he’s had in the United States, why does he think moving abroad will mitigate that guilt? Yes, I do understand he joined Peace Corps for other reasons, but the impetus was guilt. Moreover, he does not evidence any steps he’s taken to help reduce the effects of his guilt-inducing actions while still living in the United States. I just don’t get that.
It’s his life to lead, of course, I am not his judge.
Also, I have no clue why you expect me to share your definition of guilt. I don’t conflate guilt with moral responsibility. They are not the same thing. They are separate concepts. Just because you seem to have wrapped your ability to empathize with guilt does not mean this occurs in me. It does not.
I want Carlos to have eye treatments because I believe all human beings should have access to quality healthcare, not because I feel guilty that many of us receive such healthcare in the United States. My empathy is entirely separate from my guilt. I don’t have healthcare, and the reason I empathize with Carlos and others in his situation is because I understand what it’s like to put off a procedure because of poverty-shame or lack of funds; it is because I know access to healthcare is a fundamental human right. I don’t need to be “guilted” into understanding that basic fact.
And what do you mean by, “He doesn´t need us to think of him while spending however much money this season on materialistic goods?” What do you mean by “us?” And who is doing the spending?
I agree with you, FutureDiplomat. I really think guilt and a sense of moral responsibility are distinct. If you can act to help someone, do so; if it’s not within your ability, why feel guilty?
As for the case of Carlos, I agree that I don’t see how it is good to feel guilt for him. Sure, I feel a moral responsibility to him, in some way, but it’s very diffuse, seeing that I don’t know him, and seeing that there are people suffering throughout the world, and perhaps suffering just as much in my own back yard. In that case, maybe I can donate money to an NGO that does good long-term work with Carlos (or just gives him a paternalistic hand-out; or puts my money in the boss’s pocket with little benefit to Carlos — who knows), or maybe I can support legislation to improve universal healthcare in Paraguay. If I know Carlos, and he is a good friend, and I have money, and I plan to stay in contact over the years, why wouldn’t I just pay for his eye-care, out of compassion for him? Either way I just don’t see the utility of guilt here.
As for Chris’s case, I can see FutureDiplomat’s perspective: it might be a fairly shallow sort of empathy that would lead someone to do Peace Corps out of “guilt” for things you did in the US. Working with people in a foreign country doesn’t fix societal harm done in the US (assuming that reduced tax income actually affected us, which may not even be the case). The initiative to change life directions and paths is admirable, though, and maybe his PC experience will motivate him to work for societal good in the future (sounds like that’s his idea).
PS: I think FutureDiplomat brings up a good point that keeps getting pushed aside — who is the “we” in all of this — well… I think the presumption is that “we” is educated middle-upper-class people (largely white, though not necessarily). In development work, this “we” is still seen as the elevated agents of empathy/compassion and “the poor” as suffering objects of empathy. Many people try to address this power dynamic on the ground, but one manifestation of white privilege and economic privilege is the ability to assume a “we” and to say, “We can help you”.
A TED talk recently came out on development, and the speaker touched upon the idea of “we” tangentially and paternalism directly. This man has some very interesting ideas, and he delivers a good speech (even though it lulls a bit towards the end). He has quite a bit to say on development and how to be successful doing so. Here is the link:
Hey, thanks for the link, Adam. It’s interesting to hear a critique of paternalism from another angle… it seems that radical perspective is beginning to influence aid organizations and the “Kiva” model pretty much has exploded one permutation of the idea. Unofficially we know a lot of volunteers find greater success outside their official programs, but do you think Peace Corps will ever adopt such a radical development approach?
As for “we”: Sirolli maybe hints at it, and I’d like to say that “we” includes everyone with an interest in the well-being or development of others… but I think it would be a little idealistic to say that sort of unity exists in a direct sense. The “we” may be used rhetorically, but it’s interesting that a small word can pack so many assumptions dependent on the perspective and viewpoint of both the author and his readers.
Hey, Adam — thank you for writing this very thoughtful piece. It got my brain working again, and I had to write a response of my own on my blog. I won’t bog down your page with my writings, but I just wanted to pop back in to say, thanks for keeping the dialogue alive!
Hi there, Future Diplomat! Thanks for the appreciation. I’m glad that there can be a dialogue on this subject. I have read your entry, and it gave quite a few interesting ideas that I had not thought about (such as the absence of guilt while being in America. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to take a look at one’s own backyard). I look forward to seeing what others have to say about your post as well. Thanks for taking the time to respond!
Reading all of this gives me the warm and fuzzies. I think it’s fantastic that all of you are so passionate about helping others, whatever the motivation might be. I respect Esther for having the courage to put her feelings out there. My motivations for joining PC did not involve guilt, but I definitely struggled with my own naive impression of what development work would be like and the ensuing guilt I experienced when I realized that I didn’t possess the skill sets necessary to help my village. (When I felt/feel this way I remind myself of the good work I actually did accomplish there, however small). To put it simply, Esther’s article resonated with my own moments of self doubt. Speaking as somebody who struggles with this feeling, I agree with Future Diplomat and others that guilt really isn’t the best motivator, but rather compassion for my fellow human beings is. Thanks so much to all of you for your service and also for caring so deeply.