We all start out with a dream. When I was a kid if you asked the girls what they wanted to be when they grew up, they would quip that they longed to be a ballerina or a pretty celebrity, and little boys would lower their voices an octave and reply that they wanted to grow up to be football players and astronauts. But today’s kids are a new breed. More tuned-in to the everyday harsh realities of life, they are uninterested in time-worn answers that require them to bow to the gender Gods. “Surprisingly, more boys than girls dream of becoming dancers – while girls put footballer ahead of dancer in their list of favorites” (DailyMail.com). While kids have become less gender-restricted, these modern, hard-nosed elementary-school students are already going for the brass ring. The number one career choice for the leaders of tomorrow? To become a doctor. It’s evident that these kids are dreaming big. But what is motivating them? Is it the money and prestige that goes along with becoming a doctor, or do they genuinely care about becoming a healer?
When people used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d get an egghead look on my face and reply seriously, “I want to be a psychologist.” I remember adults chuckling at that. A puny fourth grader, a girl no less, whose ambition in life was to become a shrink? More than one adult walked away shaking their heads at the audacity. Everybody knew that although girls were admitted to medical school in the 1970s that it wasn’t going to be an easy road by any stretch of the imagination. Those brave women would have to compete with chauvinistic men for the class seats, while male professors looked upon women in medical school as trouble-making bra-burners who were just out to prove something. Although I didn’t know exactly what psychologists did back then, I understood that they helped people who had problems, and that’s all I cared about. I subsequently wandered away from the ballerina pack, taking the road less traveled. But as a magnet on my refrigerator asks: “I chose the road less traveled. Now where the hell am I?”
I never made it to doctorhood, although I did climb the academic ladder far enough to glimpse it from where I was standing in my master’s counseling program. And while it is said that everyone will have 15 minutes of fame, I admit to having had much more than my share. I became a writer (which happened completely by accident), and that path has lavished me with many unexpected and delightful moments of glory. However, I never attained my dream of becoming a full-fledged doctor, because in the process I discovered that intellectual prowess and money couldn’t buy me happiness. In fact, I watched as each subsequent academic degree made me into a person I didn’t even want to be around anymore. I coveted more and more stuff which only brought me undue stress and worry, causing me to become competitive and envious of others. I had unwittingly evolved into a narcissistic know-it-all whose lofty ambition in life was to out-smart and impress others with my academic acumen and fancy “stuff.” A far cry from my innocent childhood motivation of simply wanting to help troubled people. Maybe it’s a good thing I never became a doctor-we already have enough of those kinds of doctors in the world.
What I did wind up becoming is a suicide survivor, a writer, a counselor, and most importantly, a decently compassionate person. Having made the journey down the road less traveled, I’ve to the conclusion that you cannot be money-hungry and be truly compassionate at the same time. So when my teen daughter committed suicide and my career as a counselor was consequently flushed down the grief toilet, I had a decision to make (or was it made for me)? I had to either choose to learn to forgive myself and embrace my humanity, or I could go on with the stuff-shirt charade, wearing a mask of feigned strength and superiority while covering up my feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing that her suicide had brought on. It took me over a year to forgive myself for the mistakes I made as a parent, and to choose to love myself again.
During that time of mourning a strange and wonderful thing occurred in my heart. Without manipulation, without any contrived effort on my part, I began, for the first time in my life, to truly and genuinely care about other people as much as I cared about myself. I began to really hear others for the first time. Not just because they were my clients paying me to hear them. I was relating to them. I was feeling withthem, not just feeling bad for them. I realized with astonished amazement that I was… one of them. My daughter’s death forced me to see what I had tried so hard to avoid seeing: that I was a human being. I was no better, yet no worse than anyone else. I was quite simply a flawed and fumbling biped who could get as lost on the path as anyone, yet I was still intrinsically good and lovable. In the end, I decided to go back to what the little girl in me knew was right and good: to simply help people who were hurting like I was, minus the bravado. Funny how lost we can get when we get all grown up.
While I didn’t become a doctor, I think my daughter would be relieved to know that I finally found my way back to compassion. I sure am rooting for the kids of tomorrow, because like me, some of them will have to get lost in order to find their way back to their original selves again. So here’s to more boy ballerinas, and girl footballers who are brave enough to be true to their dreams.