Committing to Failure

Jane Haines is a Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Atlántico, Colombia


At the end of September, 2018, a new group of community economic development trainees reached the end of their training period.

Language? Check.

Practicum project? Check.

Site visits? Check.

One million tiny Styrofoam cups of coffee? Check. Check. Check.

During the final days of training, our group was buzzing with excitement to swear in as official Peace Corps volunteers. On the very last day, surrounded by staff, language facilitators, and dear friends, we reaffirmed our commitment to service. In shaky voices, our task was to stand, one by one, and make a speech about why we had committed to service, and how we planned to realize that commitment over the next two years.

I didn’t expect to be so emotional, and I observed the panic on my fellow trainees’ faces as each of us stood and became overwhelmed with nerves, fear, or both. Tears were shed, hugs were had, and everyone was better off for having made themselves vulnerable. Little did we know, our ability to reflect on that commitment would be one of the most helpful tools we carried with us into the uncertain, unstructured, lonely weeks ahead.

Without the fulfillment of meaningful relationships or successful projects (or a salary), waking up every day in a new place was going to be hard. And one of the less-talked-about realities of Peace Corps service is that the happy, well-adjusted, smiling volunteers you see on social media channels and marketing brochures have endured quite a bit of emotional turbulence to get there. In these early days, there is little that pushes us into the unknown apart from raw, comes-from-the-gut kind of commitment. So here’s mine.

The following is an excerpt from my commitment to service speech, adapted from a piece by one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace.


There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

The point of the fish story is that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. That may sound like abstract nonsense, so I’ll give you an example.

Let’s imagine you wake up and it’s an average day in coastal Colombia. You have to peel yourself away from your sweat-soaked bed sheets because the heat has already penetrated your room, although it’s only seven o’clock in the morning.

Once you’re dressed and ready to face the day, you walk outside to see the streets have flooded overnight. You don’t have enough cash to pay for a motocarro since the ATM in your town hasn’t functioned in weeks. You sweat through your clothes on the way to school, your counterpart shows up late, and the construction workers who’ve made a habit of hurling piropos your way have switched from their usual “hola hermosa” to “ay mami que gorda te ves.

We’ve all had days like this—they’re quite common and incredibly frustrating. They make me want to rip my hair out and quit.

This is where the work of choosing comes in.

When this stuff happens, I take a deep breath and wait for la brisa to hit my sweaty face. I think about members of my community and how each of them leads lives full of happiness and anger, struggle and triumph, just like me. And I’m here to live those things alongside them.  

My counterpart may have spent the morning dealing with her sick toddler instead of meeting with me, and the construction guys may really think their piropos come off as compliments. It’s not probable, but it is possible—it all just depends on what you want to consider.

I’m talking about the power we all have to find meaning in daily, petty, unglamorous moments of our Peace Corps service—to turn a hot walk to school into not only a meaningful, but even sacred experience, overflowing with the same compassion, empathy, and curiosity that drew us to Peace Corps in the first place. I know this sounds cheesy and ridiculous, but it’s what helps me get through my day without wanting to pull my hair out.

Don’t get me wrong, thinking this way isn’t easy—in fact, it’s quite unnatural. Personally, it’s often difficult to imagine a reality that doesn’t constantly revolve around me and my immediate needs. That’s why the kind of awareness I’m talking about requires our utmost attention. It begs us to truly know and care about other people and their stories, and to sacrifice for them, over and over, day in and day out, in myriad, petty, unsexy little ways.

The next two years won’t be glamorous or easy, and they’ll probably be full of failure. But our success (and our sanity) demands that we find meaning in what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: this is water, this is water.

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