What to Expect When Nothing is Expected

Throughout my time in Peru, I wrote occasional columns for The Fond du Lac Reporter, my hometown newspaper. The following piece originally appeared in the October 25, 2013 issue of the Reporter and can be found at http://www.fdlreporter.com/article/20131025/FON06/310250122/Guest-commentary-What-expect-when-nothing-expected

My thanks to Gary Clausius and Mike Mentzer for editing these articles and helping with this project.

The best suggestion I could offer someone moving to Peru is never forgo a bathroom. The runner-up is to abandon all expectations.

This is because life in Peru rarely goes according to plan. For someone coming from a culture that prizes order and concreteness as much as we do in the United States, the conspicuous absence of these qualities can be jarring.

When I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I signed on to work at a parish. I ended up teaching at a high school. When I began at the school, I expected to instruct English and religion classes. While I covered these, I also taught verbal reasoning and computer courses.

Prior arrangements were flouted in commonplace ways. This took shape in everything from last minute meetings to hastily prepared birthday celebrations.

The haphazard, go-with-the-flow style with which my Peruvian friends moved sometimes appeared feckless. On the other hand, it seemed to leave them more open to life’s ebbs and flows.

One of JVC’s tenets is living simply. The idea is that volunteers can strive for solidarity with people they serve by operating closer to the more basic circumstances of their host communities.

The goal is not to glorify poverty or reject fundamental human needs. It is to recognize that in living within or even well below their means, people from our host communities are often freer from the false sense of safety that comes with stringent planning or extravagant materialism. Because their lives so frequently fail to follow their desires, they are more likely to get by relying on and therefore appreciating intangible elements like collective effort and help from loved ones.

Over time, I learned to see how important such an outlook is.

In April, I was diagnosed with pericarditis, an inflammation of the fibrous membrane around the heart. After controlling the swelling through treatment in a number of Peruvian clinics, I went back to my routine.

Unfortunately, the ailment reappeared shortly thereafter and made it necessary to return to the United States for additional care. Stateside appointments have made it clear that recuperation will be much slower than originally anticipated. In layman’s terms, my time volunteering in Peru is over.

This news has been painful for many reasons, the most glaring being that I have been separated from a life that gave me great joy and purpose. Just as it was hard being away from family and friends in the United States, it is now difficult to be so far from people I care about in Peru.

Strangely, though, the unforeseen nature of my departure has allowed me to feel a new closeness with Peruvian friends. As I said, many of them live in humble conditions that require a willingness to accept uncertainty.

“How will we pay for our sick child’s medicine? What will happen to our cornfields if the rain does not stop?” I know people who must ask themselves these questions and press forward without answers.

While the concerns I face are not nearly as serious, seeing my volunteer experience come to such an abrupt finish and being unsure of where my current situation will lead have shown me what it means to welcome indefinite moments. Moreover, they have taught me that despite the security many of us seek through money or excessive preparation, we have little say over life’s good or bad surprises. All we control is the way we respond.

I did not know what would happen when I moved to South America; I learned that none of us ever really know what to expect. My Peruvian friends, however, demonstrated that patience, grace, humility, humor and community make it possible to live with ambiguity and embrace the unknown.

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About brianharperu

A recent Marquette University graduate who inexplicably finds himself living and working as a Jesuit Volunteer in Peru, Brian enjoys writing, learning new musical instruments, imagining himself to be a better athlete than he is, eating pancakes and voting as part of his civic duty.
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