Wednesday, September 1, 2010

No direction for fools

There’s something exquisite in the uncertain: something balanced and delicate, unpredictably perfect and perfectly unpredictable. Maybe it’s just the fact of its immateriality which makes the unknown vibrate with possibility; perhaps it’s the sordid sensual reality of corporeal existence that makes its counterpoint so desirable. Maybe it’s just that our misused brains reject what they interpret and, like a little kid begging for a pull on his dad’s beer, desperately and perversely grope for things they can’t understand.

I’m not talking about any frontier-lust nonsense, where the desire is to know what was previously unknown. What I mean is the desire to not know, the wish to hold in the mind for a single instant a crystal whose edges intersect while remaining untouched, whose straight lines bend without contradiction. What does that mean?


In Peace Corps – because everything, like water to the sea, returns to Peace Corps in the end – this uncertainty seems to battle against a logical tendency of the mind to straighten the skewed and see everything in its proper place. (As if everything has a place.) There’s often delight in “accepting” things that on some level don’t make sense. “That’s just how it is” (and its anthropocentric cousin “That’s just how he/she/they is/are”) is a common phrase often used to dismiss some cultural quirk as naive, silly, illogical, bizarre, backwards, antiquated, token, or pointlessly traditional. It is also a ploy to seem openminded, as in “Filipinos communicate indirectly. That’s just how they are.” Again, this isn’t really what I’m talking about. This is just a way to be arrogant while pretending to be empathetic.

Maybe it’s appropriate that I can’t find exactly the right way to express this affinity for uncertainty. I felt its pleasant prodding when I got on a boat last month and, thanks to lots of contradictory information, didn’t know just where I would dock. I felt no relief or happiness at actually discovering my destination, but for those few hours of indetermination, I seemed to experience a wonderful blurriness in one tiny nook of my mind. The possibilities swirled like a very small cloud of mayflies and I knew that, on my own, I could never catch the right one and know it was right.

This feeling seems to contradict the tenets of evolutionary biology. The basic instinct to survive takes a backseat to the thrill of ambiguity: in its risk-taking perversity, humanity denies its own origins. And perhaps proves its genius.

I think the search for the fulfillment of this desire is probably a common reason, acknowledged or not, for applying to the Peace Corps. Ironically, many parts of my life here are as predictable as the sunrise. The things that were exciting to learn are now routine. Still those nebulous moments occur, and at times I’m bubbled in that clarity-which-isn’t, that belief that as long as I don’t know what’s going on, every atom in the universe is in its perfect place. And when the pointy head of knowledge pops that bubble, all the worries and stresses of trying to make sense of a nonsensical world rush in, clamoring to be entertained. I suppose it’s obvious that these moments should occur more often in an unfamiliar setting, an unfamiliar culture.

So last week during my stay at Batch 269’s Initial Orientation in Cavite, and for the couple days afterward, I had to decide how much I wanted to say to the new trainees, because I didn’t want to deprive them of any of these moments. I ended up saying a lot more than I had previously intended, probably for two major reasons: first, it’s tough to be coldhearted enough to turn down requests for specific information, and the trainees made quite a few such requests; and second, it’s likewise difficult to resist showing off, to some degree, my two years of experience – meager though the sum of my wisdom may be.

(A few sidenotes on IO, because I don’t plan on writing an entire entry about it:
  • It was decent for the most part
  • I like most of the new CYF trainees
  • I’ve already picked out several people who I don’t think will make it through service
  • The new CRMs are a whiny bunch, to make an unfair generalization
  • Peace Corps should stop pampering volunteers quite so much, and that includes my batch
  • The newbies really, really love their laptops and cell phones, like almost disturbingly so
  • The doubling of incoming trainees was a bad idea, or at least an idea that was implemented too abruptly – thanks DC
  • I had no major revelations about my own service, but my respect for the Filipino Peace Corps staff grew ever deeper
  • Swimming in Manila Bay confirmed my long-held suspicion that swimming in Manila Bay is disgusting
  • My major contribution to the conference was introducing more unsuspecting victims to the cardgame Mao
  • Fresh cold milk for breakfast was delightful, and nacho night was a thoughtful touch
  • 90% of the male trainees looked identical to me and I think I’m losing my ability to distinguish between white people – just as some Filipinos couldn’t tell the difference between me and the blond German volunteers who recently bounced from my town
  • Talking informally with a group of current volunteers must be infuriating because we don’t answer anything directly [sorry, Mark]
  • There’s this boardgame called Argue, and it sucks [not sorry, Lillian]
Overall IO score: nacho night.)

As rewarding as the collecting of new experiences and new information can be within the context of working in Peace Corps, sometimes the best moments are the ones in which you can tell yourself, truthfully and peacefully and acceptingly, that you understand nothing. But it’s not bahala na – it’s not leaving fate up to some unseen forces; it’s activity, not passivity, an interaction with the unknown which may be predicated on the acceptance of ignorance, but which itself can be thrillingly dynamic. We’re all of us fools, but sometimes letting that fact guide (or un-guide) our floundering can lead to a greater reward than the dusty accumulation of knowledge.


Lillian said...

There's one thing I'm certain about: Argue's going to take over this nation and you will have missed the boat.

Anonymous said...

you've been overstaying their hospitality! plan your exit soon.