Angelina Jolie is to blame, really. Because of something she said to me in India four years ago, I have quit my 13-year career as an entertainment journalist, have given away almost everything I own, and at 43, have joined the Peace Corps...He just arrived (or is going to arrive) today! The poor sucker is going to have me as the first serving volunteer he meets. I'll try not to put him on the first plane back to America. It'd be pretty easy to mock the guy (Kiehl's moisturizer?), but people are often tougher than you might expect.
So I was seeking something authentic when I arrived in India, and I got more than I bargained for. A reported 43 percent of Mumbai’s 18 million people live in slums, and the depth of poverty is soul-sickening. By the time I met with Jolie, I felt raw and rattled, and I was eager to learn how she coped with this kind of suffering in her role as a U.N. ambassador. She said it was painful, yes, but it wasn’t debilitating because she was active. Her work was bringing attention to crises in the world. “If I couldn’t do that, I don’t know how I’d be around it, because I’d feel helpless,” she told me as we drove through the city. “You know, we all go through stages in our life where we feel lost, and I think it all comes down to having a sense of purpose. When I was famous for just being an actress, my life felt very shallow. Then when I became a mom and started working with the U.N., I was happy. I could die and feel that I’d done the right things with my life. It’s as simple as that.” [...]
So 18 months ago I applied to join the Peace Corps, and this week I leave for South Africa to begin my 27-month commitment as an HIV/AIDS Outreach volunteer. Excited as I am, I confess that I haven’t quite eradicated all of my Hollywood values. I’m currently trying to calculate how much Kiehl’s moisturizer could fit in my 80-pound luggage allotment. But I have zero doubt about my decision. I do not know where this experience will lead me, but I no longer feel lost. I’m certain that my compass is pointed in the right direction.
I'm tempted to speculate more on his motives. It's a sad truth that a fair number of people have used Peace Corps as a guarantee for a book deal filled with heartwarming homilies of questionable veracity. The angle almost writes itself: "I sat and pondered the unbelievable warmth and generosity that my impoverished host family had poured out to me, a white foreigner, the same race as those who oppressed them for years. I couldn't help thinking of Los Angeles, where luxuries of preposterous scale abound, where men will spend enough on a bottle of ultrapremium vodka to feed a South African family for a month, yet where simple kindnesses such as the kind automatically shown to me here are considered an aberration." Or something to that effect.
But I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. Lord knows it's a big step to quit your job and sign up to spend two years in Africa. Everyone, even entertainment journalists, deserves equal opportunity and respect. And hey, he could write a wholly true book too! (In fact, his host family probably will be extremely kind, and Los Angeles is full of soulless zombies.) Here's hoping Mr. Smith finds what he's looking for.