Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Heroic Life

Hey everyone.  A lot has happened since last I posted.  Not the least of which was the notice last week that I received the first grant I applied for!!!  Wenner Gren, an anthropology funding organization, decided to fund my dissertation research project, which means that I'll be heading back to Bangladesh for a year or so next summer.  I'm so excited for the big adventure, so relieved that I don't have to continue submitting grant applications, and feel sooooo stinkin' lucky that I got funded so quickly.  So, in celebration, I want to post something I wrote a couple of years ago and never published (though I can't remember why)...

For some reason, I was looking back through old blog posts and stumbled upon this one.  After reading it again wanted to share it with you now.  I should note up front that while there are a few mentions of religion (gasp!) and politics (double gasp!), this is neither a religious nor a political post.  You should also know that while I certainly do not consider myself a religious person, I do consider myself a person who is always looking for inspiration, and this most certainly is about that...

Two years ago...

A couple of Sundays ago, before heading back to Missouri, I went to a church service with my mom in which the topic of the sermon unexpectedly hit me like a ton of bricks.  The pastor (I guess he's called "pastor" - as a severely lapsed Catholic, "priest" is about the only title in my repertoire) said that although we can't all be heroes in the way the woman was who pulled the ammunition away from the Tucson shooter (in the incident where Congresswoman Giffords was shot), we can all strive to lead heroic lives.  We can treat people with kindness and love.  We can stand up for those who can't stand up for themselves.  And we can make a difference in people's lives in our careers, in our communities, and in our homes.  Amen.

I was raised to believe that the right thing to do is always to help others in need, to defend the defenseless, and to view others as equal, regardless of race, religious affiliation, nationality, or sexuality.  I believe in these principles and try to live by them.
Disclaimer:  It should be known that as a child and adolescent, I was hopelessly selfish and awkward when it came to helping people outside of our family and, frankly, I just plain didn't understand it.  In fact, I remember one Christmas Eve after mass, as my mom, my sister and I were headed out of church, with a plethora of traditions and festivities awaiting us at home, when my mom made us stop in one of the pews where an old woman sat, crying.  My mom sat with the woman for what seemed like forever to me.  When she stood up, I was ready to get on with things, but she announced that instead, we would be giving the woman a ride back to her nursing home. She told me later the woman had lost her husband that year and didn't have any family around for the holiday.
As an adult, of course, this story is both heartwarming and heartbreaking and gives me a sense of admiration for my mom that is deeper than I knew I could have.  My sister shares this ability to be completely and absolutely compassionate for others.  If she sees someone in need, she seems to instinctually know what to do and how to help.

But my point of telling you all of this is to say that while my mom and my sister seem to share this amazing ability in such a way that their heroism is so incredibly evident to me, I'm not sure that I am a member of this club.  I hope that in my adult life I have stepped outside of my comfort zone once or twice, but I think my propensity for heroism lies in my ability to educate as well as in my (often exhausting) desire to fight for people who can't fight for themselves.

... which, as I sat in church two Sundays ago, led me to question the inherent heroism in my chosen future career.

From where I sit, graduate school is seemingly one of the most selfish endeavors a person could undertake.  It is insanely time-consuming, complicates relationships with friends, family, and significant others, and seems to benefit no one but the student.  What one chooses to do with the education, on the other hand, can be selfless.  I have one friend who (you know who you are) has her PhD and devotes her professional life to counseling others and teaching students how to better counsel others.  I once had a professor at Hastings College who believed in me when I didn't believe in myself and helped me find the courage to apply to graduate schools (I hope he's reading this).  I have an ex-roommate who is using her Master's degree to help high school kids stay healthy and play the sports that they love.  These people are undoubtedly heroic.  And it most certainly doesn't require a degree or even a career to live a heroic life.  I could write volumes about the heroism I witness in the people around me.

So, what about my own chosen career?  Is there a path to heroism in there for me?

Tonight, in his State of the Union address, President Obama recounted a story of a woman in her 50's who went back to school to become a mechanical engineer (or something like that) because she wanted to show her daughters that if they work hard enough, anything is possible.  They could become whatever they wanted.  And so they would understand just exactly what hard work is.  This seems heroic to me.  And it is a message that I hope to pass on to my own children someday.  I also want to teach my kids that following a dream is a worthwhile and necessary part of life.  Perhaps, this is the heroism that graduate school has to offer.

This concept of heroism - in the way that it allows one to make a difference in the lives of others - is one that I value and that is at the very core of who I am and who I want to become.  Now seems like a critical point in my life at which I can either choose to continue meandering down the path I've started on, or to reflect upon the career path I've chosen and determine whether or not it is consistent with one of the beliefs I hold so strongly.

Back to present day...

I'm so happy to say that I believe I have answered these concerns for myself.  My trip to Bangladesh last year showed me that the work I do will absolutely have the potential to positively affect people's lives.  In the two short months I was there, I learned that my research might allow the hundreds of people I work with to be offered access to free hospitals and clinics.  I also know that being a teacher, whether it's at the university level or the kindergarten level, is a great thing.  My professors and advisors have made an enormous difference in my life and I'll have opportunities to do the same for my own students someday.

I hope you're all having a lovely Sunday...