Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, April 10

Breaking Points

Now that I’m nearing the end of my service quite a few people have asked me questions like “If you had it all to do over again, would you?” and “Have you become a better person through this experience?” And the answer to both is pretty easy: yes! If I had my own experience to do all over again, I would do it. I go through the training, the faux pas, the weight loss, the adjustments, the vacations, and the million and one colds all over again because of the person it’s made me.

I define stress as just about anything that makes a person uncomfortable, both physically and mentally. And a breaking point is that moment where, although you’ve held your cool until this point, all the stress put upon you causes you to snap. If it’s physical your body shuts down. If the breaking point is mental it’s that moment when you are full of rage, your brain (and rational thinking) have shutdown and you are no longer in control of your body and reactions (albeit this is probably only temporary- a maximum of one minute duration). The thing about my service is that, upon reflection, it’s been a field experiment in ‘what happens to Alys after she’s crossed her own breaking point.’

Every culture clash, language barrier, and amenity forgone has at some point rattled me like never before. I once went on an 8 hour bike trip that broke me when I literally collapsed falling off my bike. Or there’s the time a mouse was taunting me by pooping all over my things but staying invisible until finally running across my desk while I was working. I started screaming, running, and crying uncontrollably.

Can the decency of a person be measured by how they handle their breaking point? I believe so. During this time in Senegal, I’ve learned a lot about how I’m prone to react to various trying situations. When a little kid calls me a racial slur, and it’s the end of my rope so I break, how do I handle it? Do I yelling mean things back, run after the kid and beat him, find his mother and rat him out (ensuring that she’ll beat him worse than I would have), or tell him off in his own language? I’ve tried it all… and I’m not proud. And the question then became how to handle that breaking point?

Somewhere along the route I remembered a story. We all visit our predecessors for about a week before actually beginning our service; it’s called Volunteer Visit (or Demystification). A friend of mine got assigned to a particularly rough town already littered with foreigners and tourism. So when he visited and saw firsthand how the volunteer was treated- like every other stranger they assumed couldn’t understand the insults but would likely hand out money anyway- he was a bit shocked at her response. She simply ignored it. She said nothing and acted as if she didn’t even realize they were talking to or about her.

And as I look back on it, even my own predecessor reacted the same way. We would be walking the streets of Mboro when a group of people sitting outside of a house would yell and accuse us of being spies. He would translate it for me, and we’d talk about the lore that all PCVs are really CIA spies, but we acted as though our conversation wasn’t interrupted; which is basically ignoring it. These volunteers had a few experiences under their belts. They’ve probably reached their breaking points on countless occasions already before us newbies got a chance to observe them. Their learned reaction is no reaction at all; what does that mean?

I’ve reacted in every way possible and yet none of them felt truly satisfying. Clearly my snap judgments aren’t to be trusted when it comes to annoyances. Therefore, shortly after having this very same mental discussion with myself I figured I’d try it their way. I’d take what I would describe as the “high road,” which is to not react at all. Back to the slur slinging child example: It was hard the first few times; my blood would boil. I was angry anyway, and the only thing that had changed was my outlet. Deep breaths and walking away helped. Slowly I got to a point where I didn’t turn my head to glare. And eventually I didn’t even slow my pace- I’d just walk on by. I didn't even hear it. The words no longer seem to register in my conscious thoughts.

In a perfect world we are nice, cordial and respectful to everyone. Our breaking points would be the pin ultimate challenge of this. If I were a perfect person, I would take 5 minutes or more to stop and explain to the children how they were being disrespectful and that if they wanted to get my attention they should call me by my name. But in truth, t’s neither practical nor likely that a volunteer could be on-point every moment of a two year stint. So, in lieu of perfection or the opposite (an international incident) and also to save time- because this does happen multiple times per day- I don’t react. I had finally digested what matured PCVs had!

I’ve recently reread all of my stories and discovered a common story: an “incident” in which I completely lose my temper and act like a fool in response to any number of stimulants. It’s regrettable that there are so many of my ‘not finest’ moments on display. I can’t begin to defend the ways in which I’m simply not a perfect person. But I am trying. And never would I give up this experience that has opened my eyes to a number of different things, not the least of which is how I handle my breaking points.

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