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An evening with Paul Theroux

I’m lucky enough to be here at the University of Michigan during the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps.  And the celebrations have been great at the birthplace of my favorite government organization.

On Wednesday I attended a talk by Paul Theroux, renowned author and former Peace Corps volunteer.  He talked on “How the Peace Corps Changed [his] Life” and it was great to hear his stories about how learning about the world and gaining experience and insight into life in Malawi, (Nyasaland, when he was serving) and later other parts of the developing world as he continued to travel, really helped him better understand literature.  He also touched on how different he thought American foreign policy would be if more of our politicians had been in the peace corps.  Specifically he talked about how Dick Cheney’s soul might have been saved.

Paul spoke about a number of different things that I think still ring true for peace corps volunteers today, or at least they rang true for me.  And as I sat listening to him speak, I jotted down a number of quotations that I think are true for many peace corps volunteers.

Sergent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps said something to the effect of, “If you’re fuzzy in your ideals the Peace Corps is not for you.”  To which Mr. Theroux quipped, “We were all fuzzy.” It’s mostly true.  Many of us signed up for the Peace Corps because we weren’t quite sure what we wanted to do at that point in our life – in that sense we were fuzzy.  Also I think a lot of us, certainly myself, were looking to flesh our beliefs out, to learn about these things we were taking a stand for as young college students.  But I do think we were all firm in our ideals.  I knew that solidarity was important to me, and social justice.  I just didn’t really know why yet, and what those ideals meant in real life.

“The Peace Corps allowed us to know the world, and to know the world person to person, in villages.” And this is what helped me qualify what those ideals that landed me in the Peace Corps really meant.

“We discovered the limits of aid.” This speaks to the heart of so much that I learned while living in Tanzania, that I’m still trying to put into words that make sense to those who haven’t seen the failings of aid.  Mr. Theroux also spoke about how spending more money wasn’t the solution to so much of the injustice in the developing world, because it is given without attachment, and therefore without accountability.  Rather, “You have to spend yourself with it,” he said.

Paul shared many stories about the Peace Corps and his later travels the other evening, stories that I think all of us Returned Peace Corps volunteers could identify with, and he certainly voiced a sentiment that is true for all of us.

“In my heart, I’m still a Peace Corps volunteer.”

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One Comment on “An evening with Paul Theroux”

  1. Patricia Klucas Says:

    This is very insightful. I think its more than just college students that are idealistic (or maybe this rings true for me because I still am one). I think that most of our society, our churches, and community groups are idealistic in how we think about the other in the world. I like what he said about knowing the world person to person. I also like what he said about aid and being willing to spend yourself with it.

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