Sunday, March 4, 2012

Legacy and Change

Yesterday marked the last day of a visit from my family.  Their visit also happened to coincide with our 1 year anniversary of life in Peace Corps Costa Rica.  My wife and I hugged my mother as she readied to take the hotel shuttle to the airport and I couldn’t help but to think about all the changes that had occurred during our past year of service, both here in Costa Rica and on the homefront, back in San Francisco and Medford, OR.

When we arrived one year ago, we arrived as a group of 32 eager volunteers ready to take on whatever challenges lay ahead.  We had no idea of our site placement and came in with an intermediate level of Spanish, just enough to be generally conversational, but lacking in fluency and comprehension.  Now, we are a group 23 volunteers, some having left for medical reasons and the others having left for personal ones.  Gone is our unconditional eagerness, and in its place is a sense of realism that the visions that we once had to change the lives of the people in our host communities has met with the obstacles and the difficulty of bringing change to a foreign community without the change happening organically from within the community itself.  We’ve adjusted our expectations, oftentimes at the expense of our full personal satisfaction of our service, but at the end of the day we maintain the same ideals that brought us here: We are soldiers of peace and compassion and that we as a global community are connected.  We hold true to the fact that through our service, we can change lives, even if it is just one at a time and that those lives that we change have the ability to multiply, as people pay it forward to others in their lives.

These days we are able to switch fairly easily between our native English and Spanish and although we don’t always comprehend everything, we’re able to place a context and ask relevant questions to ascertain meaning.  With the time spent in our community and our improvement in communication we’ve been able to integrate better with our community, and love to come home from a long weekend trip to the “saludos” from kids and families in the community that we know.  Almost always, we see someone on the bus that we know from ours or a nearby community, and stop and chat – usually about the weather “¡Qué calor!” or when the next English class will be occurring.  With this integration, some of the projects that we came in dreaming are finally starting to be realized.  Communication and community integration have and will be a key to the successes that we hope to achieve in our brief stay here.

On the homefront, my nieces and nephews are growing and going to school, my sister is changing jobs, my mother retired and traveling constantly, friends having babies and everyone aging.  I spent my 35th birthday in Costa Rican last April 12th and will have the luck to be able to experience three birthdays while in country.  I will leave Costa Rica at the ripe old age of 37, no longer a jóven, by Costa Rican standards, which lasts until 35 years of age.  Instead, I will be a viejito, with the obligation and responsibility to condense my life experience and extract packets of wisdom which will guide me and my family in the years to come.  Life may seem to move slowly, but every moment we have on earth, represents an infinite amount of change.  I find a beauty in this change, a somehow ordered chaos, as each thing, both living and non-living, adjusts to these sometimes minute, other times sudden and violent changes, as if through some sort of sophisticated dance.

My mother remarked to me during a dinner that my sister commented to her after my father passed away that she is thinking more about what her legacy will try to imprint on the world before she to leaves the earth, as we all must do in the end.  Aging, and through aging, change, is something through which we all experience, and oftentimes fight, while trying to come to grips with what we may call the enigma of the human experience.  We all have ways to cope and manage with this experience, and some more healthy than others such as religion, meditation, writing, exercise and setting and achieving of goals.

Legacy was actually the theme of our last All Volunteer Conference last October as Peace Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary (in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy).  Melinda and I will also be lucky to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps Costa Rica, which began in 1963 in the final months of our service before we head home in 2013.  I think of all the volunteers who have sacrificed more than 2 years of their lives, believing in the same ideals which brought me and 31 other volunteers here to Costa Rica (and more than 7,000 worldwide).  I think about all the projects completed, schools built, relationships made, children taught and health improved, mostly through very simple initiatives.  Small efforts together equal enormous change.

So, I think both of my legacy as a Peace Corps volunteer and as a citizen of the planet.  I struggle to keep perspective on the big picture, that all the little things that I am accomplishing, as small as greeting someone with a smile, a hug and the intention to bring that person love and understanding in the face of the unknown, that all these small things we do, may seem small, but when aggregated together over the term of two years, or for a lifetime for that matter, is immensely positively powerful especially when multiplied by the people we touch.  I have to remind myself of this constantly, as small and as little as we may feel, we are also very powerful as free agents of change, that we are the masters of our decisions and the way we approach life.  The paradox of this opposition is that it can render us incapable, undeserving and powerless, but if liberated from this thinking, it brings this incredible sense of ownership and strength over our journey through life.

So, I guess the take home message I’m trying to get to here, is don’t get too fixated on the small things, especially the mistakes that we unavoidably all make.  Focus on your intention and think of how the positive small things that you do relate to the big picture.  If you like what you see in the big picture then you are likely on the right path.  As far as legacy goes, I’m not sure that in my case it may be as easily deducted as I would have hoped, but rather so far it is focusing on the quality of the experiences, relationships and work that I do – all small, but important details, which when added and multiplied are bringing positive change in our world of uncertainty.


  1. You guys rock, and I congratulate you on yuor integration and your hard work. You are exemplary Volunteers!

  2. You have the gift of fluid expression Stephen, we all have a lot to learn from you. Keep in touch.