I WANTED TO JOIN THE PEACE CORPS, BUT THEN I FELL IN LOVE
I’m hoping you can help me figure out what to do.
I am about to graduate from college. I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after school. I was pre-med and did well and got into a good med school, but I also applied for some programs like Peace Corps and Doctors Without Borders—which had always been my dream. Since I was a little boy, I wanted to live for a few years in Africa and experience my homeland (I am a Black man).
So I got accepted to Peace Corps and have been given an assignment in [rural Africa]. Med school said they would defer my admission to do Peace Corps, so that’s fine. But in the meantime two things have happened. I met someone I really like and my grandmother has been diagnosed with lung cancer. And now I don’t know what to do.
We don’t really know how long my grandmother has left. She’s doing treatment and they say she could live 5-10 more years but who even knows? Also I will be honest, I really fell for this woman I met and the idea that I won’t see her for two years (twice in that time at the most probably) is awful. But I have wanted to participate in Peace Corps literally since I can remember and part of me is really excited to go. The medical school will re-activate my admission but not until Fall 2017 so who knows what I would do? I feel weak even thinking about cancelling the Peace Corps for a woman but I am thinking about it. And if I missed the end of my grandmother’s good days?
What do I do?
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Dear Brave Correspondent,
Honestly, I would be more surprised if you weren’t thinking about cancelling. That’s a collision of many important things in a single intersection, and my initial take is that any reasonably thoughtful person would be taking a step back and considering whether going off to another continent for two years is the right thing right now. If the circumstances were different, I might say, “Well, what’s most important to you?” But you are looking at a lifelong dream, a fresh and compelling love, and very possibly the end of your grandmother’s life and none of those are minor issues. They are not the small stuff. Which you know, and which is why this feels complicated and difficult.
I regret to say that I cannot tell you what to do. You are going to have to peer into your own insides, into the rooms and spaces of your heart—both those that are tenanted and those that stand waiting—and imagine some things. You will have to imagine some awful and difficult scenarios, and some lovely joyful scenarios, and some profoundly bittersweet ones too, and somehow you are going to have to decide which of the bad ones is least awful and which of the good ones is most nourishing, and make a set of choices accordingly. But let us not fool ourselves: there’s not an easy choice for you here.
Holding onto a dream for an entire life and then seeing it about to be realized is powerful stuff. This seems extra true for a dream that’s so connected to identity and culture for you. It’s true that Peace Corps could be postponed, but it is also true that the older we get the more responsibilities to other people we typically accumulate. At 21, I could have gone to Vegas for a week without anyone necessarily noticing I had gone unless they wanted to borrow my 1983 Chevy Celebrity with the velour seats. Now at 41, I have friends and lovers and a husband and children and to be perfectly honest with you I can’t even take too long in the bathroom without being needed somewhere. I wouldn’t trade it, but my next possible opportunity to go live somewhere else for two years is 2033, which is when my youngest turns 18.
As to your grandmother, I hope she lives fifty more years in robust good health, long enough to sneak ice cream cones with her great-grandchildren and lie about it to your face. We also know, though, that she might not. For sure, any one of us could get hit with a beer truck any day and who knows what might happen and so on. On the other hand, when my Grandpa had lung cancer I made as many visits as I could. I somewhat suspect that if you asked her, she would say that you should go. The Peace Corps does provide emergency leave if a member of your immediate family gets sick or dies, but I am unclear from the website if that covers grandparents or just parents, siblings, and children—you might need to ask. How will you feel if you cannot join your family at your grandmother’s bedside, or at her funeral? Could you write letters or make her videos? Is it the time with her that you’re loathe to miss, or the chance to say goodbye? Is there a way you could imagine celebrating her life from your posting that would feel okay to you?
And then, of course, your new love. There is just never a good time to be away from someone you love, and sometimes even a short absence is agonizing. I travel for work, and I try never to be away longer than ten days—two weeks is my absolute upper limit and I find it quite excruciating toward the end. While it’s true as Roger de Rabutin wrote, that “Absence is to love what wind is to fire; it extinguishes the small, it inflames the great,” it is also true that the emotion of missing someone, of longing for them, of yearning is one of the most complicated and most powerful things we feel as humans. Knowing that someone is wishing for you, that you wish for them too and cannot be where they are is (since we’re in the Poetry Section of the column today) as Pablo Neruda wrote: “Don’t go far off, not even for a day, because – /because –/ I don’t know how to say it: a day is long/ and I will be waiting for you, as in an empty station.”
I don’t think it’s at all weak for you to consider the possibility that now might not be the right time in your relationship development to be away for two years. Granted that I have been foolish and optimistic in love my whole life, but even so I have very few regrets about that – even when things have not turned out he way I hoped. To be loved well, by someone who sees you and with whom you feel met, matched – that’s kind of magic that’s hard to come by, and you are wise to treasure it.
(Interestingly, one of the few regrets I do have in the category of What I Did For Love is that when I had an opportunity to develop and teach a theatre program for at-risk youth in Central America, my girlfriend at the time pressured me heavily not to go and I didn’t. I am trying not to let that experience color my reply to you, but it seems worthwhile to disclose it in case more of my hurt about that is leaking out than I can tell.)
There’s also one other issue. Part of why this is so hard is that so many factors are unknown and beyond your control. You could email the Peace Corps and say you’re staying home and the next day your new love could dump you and the day after that your grandmother could die. That’s obviously a worst case scenario, and every part of me hopes it doesn’t happen, but it could – and so could every possible other permutation. Your choices may or may not impact outcomes in this case. A lot of things are out of your hands. So, as you decide, also try to keep that part somewhere in the mix: you need to do whatever it is at least partly for you. If you make decisions that are about how it might look to people, you may end up with nothing but regret.
And so, Brave Correspondent, here you are. In so many ways, you are in a cornucopia of blessings – you have options for school and meaningful work, you have a grandmother with whom you’re close, and you have a fresh and new love who has turned on all the lights in your heart. But you can’t have all of those at once, not quite, or at least not all right up close as I understand you would prefer. If I have any advice, it might be to ask the Peace Corps what they think – surely you’re not the first one with this problem. Maybe they’ll say “take a year and spend your time with these estimable women and see whether you feel more ready next year; we’ll keep the light on for you.” Maybe they’ll say “Go to medical school and come see us again when you’re a doctor, we will have so much work for you then.” Maybe they’ll say something else I can’t guess. Maybe you’ll marry this woman. Maybe your grandmother will make a complete recover. Maybe you’ll go to the Peace Corps as a doctor and be so very useful to them, way more than you are now. So many things are possible for you right now, Brave Correspondent. I hope every single good one happens for you.
Love and courage,