Leaving Washington for the path of service
I pause briefly on my regular trek home, glancing up at the Capitol dome pasted on a darkening sky. This is my favorite view of the Capitol -- when it is illumined bright against the night. I think about my future. I know that I will soon be leaving the pressures and the pleasures of Washington life. I know that i will miss living and working so close to the activities of the Congress.
A few weeks ago I was invited to become a Peace Corps volunteer, something I had wanted to do since high school. The decision whether to accept had been difficult. I had thought of the old cliche about opportunity knocking only once. Yet in accepting I would have to leave a good job, valued friends, and loved ones. I would have to postpone future educational plans and sustain a major reduction in salary. moreover, i would be joining the front lines of volunteers in the battle against poverty, ignorance, and disease at a time when the future of united States commitment to that struggle is in doubt.
Ironically, the American people have been alarmed about instability in the world and the growth of Soviet and Cuban influence, yet we have not seen fit to increase the one foreign assistance program which offers some promise of augmenting US effectiveness abroad. Through people-to-people programs the US stands a better chance of being understood and of accomplishing important goals. This year, we have only 5,500 Peace Corps volunteers abroad, compared with 15, 500 at the high water mark reach in 1966. We can refocus national attention on the historical struggle of our century -- the struggle for food, for independence, for dignity. But we cannot accomplish much if the Peace Corps budget continues to fall in real terms. To revitalize the Peace Corps the number of volunteers should be increased to 10,000 per year, the volunteers' readjustment allowance -- which has been increased only once in 20 years -- should keep pace with inflation, and the Peace Corps should work to implement its own third goal by utilizing returned Peace Corps volunteers in educating Americans about the peoples, the cultures, and the problems of the developing world.
The Peace Corps's revitalization should proceed in tandem with a national debate on the future of volunteer service in America. This debate could be conducted under the auspices of a short-term commission as proposed in the House by Congressman Panetta and in the Senate by Senator Tsongas and should examine both military and civilian volunteer service programs and national service alternatives.
Perhaps anachronistically, I believe that we all have an obligation, whether to country, to people in need, or simply to ourselves as human beings, to commit a portion of our lives to something beyond our own comfort, or careers, or entertainment. Our country and its institutions would not be here today were it not for the sacrifices of our forebears through succeeding generations of Americans. Why is it that performing a period of service has not been ingrained in us from infancy as a natural course of events? Volunteering should be the rule, not the exception.
As responsible, it temporary, residents on this small troubled planet, we should be prepared to contribute as well as to take. The terrible waste of human lives and potential, which are daily being lost to hunger, to preventable diseases, to ignorance, and to a misplaced self-absorption, must stop.
While we all may not be able to serve for two years abroad in primitive conditions, there are many tasks closer to home which have gone unattended far too long. Neighborhoods need cleaning up, children need tutoring, older Americans need help around the house or simple companionship, recreational facilities need construction or maintenance. Where there is a will to serve there is always a way.
But if you consider the path of service, beware of:
* Friends, relatives, and loved ones.m While some may support you in your desire to serve, many will feel a secret resentment that you are leaving to pursue some other activity. Sometimes in the guise of wanting what is best for you, they will seek to keep you close at hand or try to channel your activities into more traditional pursuits.
* Societal expectations and peer group comparisons.m Don't buy into accepted ideas about linear career or educational paths.
* Your own weaknesses.m It is very hard to resist the insidious temptations of personal comfort, pleasure, and financial gain.
Most of us know intuitively that we are all interrelated and interdependent. We give lip service to the importance of non-material things. We recognize that money can't buy us love and we know about the king with no clothes. And yet we balk at the idea of service.
Continuing homeward now, I reflect on the next two years and hope that my fellow citizens, particularly my friends and colleagues in Washington, will give more than passing attention to the cruel conditions of poverty which is the common lot of the world's majority. I hope that you will consider volunteer service as an option in your own lives. For it will take our individual efforts to succeed in unleashing America's vast potential for greatness.