Monday, April 12, 2010

When I Grow Up: Why I am Not a Loser

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to read the book A Million Miles In A Thousand Years by Donald Miller. I loved the general idea of this book. In summary, Miller tells us that it is our responsibility to make our lives good stories – stories worth telling – stories with meaning and direction, with love in action, with fear and overcoming, and maybe – if you’re me, anyways – a good deal of drama.

While I’m not entirely in agreement with his idea that I have a responsibility to God to live a good story, I agree that as a human I have a responsibility to myself, my community, and my family to live a good story. Plus I want to. I mean, how incredibly boring would it be to just hang out in front of the TV, never taking risks, never moving forward, never engaging yourself in the practice of just living? It would be nice and safe, but I think I’d claw off my face out of boredom.

However, there were some things about the book that pulled at me and made me wonder if maybe Miller wasn’t missing part of what I think makes my story a good one. For example, he didn’t seem to take into account the way the inbetween places just have to happen sometimes – how sometimes we’re inbetween things and paralyzed and we just can’t move forward, but these things ultimately somehow grow us in our story. I don’t think this is anything to apologize for. There are times when our souls have to rest and have to get bored and worked up and restless before we can be any good again. It is what it is. It doesn’t mean those times make your story a poor one.

There were a few other things I felt the book didn’t account for, not because Donald Miller would think I’m living a horrifically stupid story, but just because he’s not living the story I’m living and he was writing his own story – you know, like he should have been. No biggie, I still liked the book and I still like Donald Miller.

At any rate, we discussed this on a Tuesday night, and while I was talking about these thoughts on this book, my friend Audra said something to the effect of, “I’m so glad you went this way with it. I thought I was just about to get stuck thinking about how I don’t live a good story. I work in a day care and sometimes I feel so lame”. Or, she said something to that effect. It was two weeks and ten drinks ago, so I’m going with the paraphrase here.


Cuthbert has a theory that our lives can’t impact the world the way they would have able to 50 years ago. It sounds like pure cynicism up front, but then he keeps talking and you realize he really means it and he isn’t trying to be cynical. Cuthbert says that the world is so much bigger than it was 50 years ago. Technology has opened up the world in a way it has never been open before. We don’t just live in a local community – we live in a global community. And because everybody in the world has access to everybody else in the world, each person’s impact is smaller.

If you press Cuthbert, he will give you an example. He will tell you that his grandmother has memories to this day of one night when she hosted one specific party in her community and she was a star for one evening. These memories are a big deal to her – they represent something she did within her community that was something great, not only to her but to the entire community. People talked about it, people remembered it, people passed it on to their children and their grandchildren. It was one night - one party.

We can’t do this. Oh, we can throw parties – I do that all the time. But I can’t throw a party that’s going to enthrall my entire community and be the talk of the town for generations to come. The world is too big. My party is one party amongst a thousand other parties happening in town amongst 10,000 concerts in the US that people found on the web and flew to, amongst a zillion youtube videos being downloaded around the world at the same time I’m passing out marshmallows and graham crackers. The idea that I can do something great, at least in the way the world defines greatness, is a flawed idea. The world is too big; my backyard is too small. This is why I believe that the greatest thing I can do is to live my life in a way that inspires others to live their lives well – to live good stories. That’s all I’ve got. I’m too small for anything else, so I’m going to go with what I have, which is the capacity to publically live my life in a way that reflects my values. That’s it.


My generation was told when we were all small children that we could be anything we wanted to be when we grew up. We could do anything if we wanted it badly enough and if we worked hard enough at it.

Then we grew up.

And we are not what we wanted to be.

To quote Marilyn Manson (as it is clearly appropriate for 28 year-old women to do) we didn’t grow up to be big rock stars, celebrated victims of our fame.

And most of us didn’t grow up to be professional athletes. Or singers or astronauts or the President of the United States.

We did not grow up to be anything we wanted to be, and a good chunk of us are fairly disillusioned, disappointed, and chomping on SSRIs to help us deal with the perceived reality that we failed. We did not grow up to be anything we wanted to be. We either didn’t want it badly enough or we didn’t work hard enough and now we’re tracking flight luggage and typing grant proposals and making the rounds of the hospital halls doing whatever work we’ve found – the work that is not the anything we wanted to be – and we are depressed.

When I was a kid, I had a series of things I wanted to be. For awhile, I wanted to be a famous singer (inspired by Debbie Gibson, no doubt). When I got to high school I wanted to be a psychologist. Then I wanted to be an actor in a theatre. Then I wanted to be a social worker.

These are all fine and dandy. There’s nothing wrong with any of them, and I was told all my life I could be anything I wanted to be, so they were, in theory, all attainable. Except for the fact that I have a so-so singing voice, a personality so unbalanced I can barely allow myself to depend on me, moderate acting skills, and no patience whatsoever for the attitudes of generational poverty or the bureaucracy involved in social services. Basically, I would suck horribly at everything I thought I wanted to be.

I cannot be anything I wanted to be. I never had a chance. No amount of hard work or unbridled desire is going to make it possible for me to be a famous singer. No matter how badly I wanted it, I could not be a good psychologist. I just can’t. It isn’t going to happen.

Let me repeat this: I cannot be anything I want to be.

I can be a lot of things, many of which I would probably enjoy. I’m a grant proposal writer and I’m good at it and I like it – which all makes sense in light of the fact that my natural inclination has always been to write things. I’m a mom and I think I’m damn good at that, but then I’ve always been nurturing to the people I love. I think I’d be a decent public speaker, and probably not a horrible cook. There are a lot of things I can be.

But there are a lot of things I can’t be. Period.

While we were talking about this on a Tuesday, Audra told me, “I’m 26 years old and I work in a day care. I always feel like a loser when people want to know what I do.”

Audra is sweet and funny. She is responsible, considerate almost to a fault, open-minded, and demonstrates a child-like playfulness even in the light of things like $40 tequilla and the question of whether god exists. She’s a delight. She is not a loser. I would trust her with my child any day, because she is someone I can trust and a good person for children to be around. I’m betting Audra rocks it as a day care provider.

But Audra’s generation was told they could be anything they wanted to be, which raised the bar for them. Being able to be anything brings with it an expectation to be something great – and why not? If you can be anything in the world, surely you can be something great. But the world is too big, and Audra’s daycare is too small.

So Audra feels like a loser because she wipes tears and reads stories and gives morning snacks. She feels like a loser because she nurtures people’s children and keeps them safe and shows them love and provides a service that allows other women to enter the workforce if they so choose and work toward gender equality.

Are you hearing this? Audra feels like a loser.

This makes me very sad. Audra is not a loser.


Norah doesn’t talk much. I mean, she’s 14 months old. Her language skills are pretty limited. Unless you want to talk about Elmo or Cookie (Monster) or doggies or cheese, you’re out of luck. But one day Norah is going to be a better talker and someone is going to say to her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And when she furrows her brow to think about it, they’re going to follow up with “You can be anything, you know, if you want it badly enough and you work hard enough”

And I will say, “No, you can’t Norah. You can’t be anything. You can be a lot of wonderful things, and you can do a great job at them, but you can’t be anything.”

And hopefully she will keep listening instead of thinking “Yowza, my mom is mean!” and disengaging.

Because then I will say, “Pay attention to the things you’re good at and that you love to do. Those are the things you’ll have the best chance at making a living with. Pay attention to those things when you decide what you want to be, because those are going to point you to the things you can do and that you can do well – the things you can be if you want them badly and if you work hard.”

And then no matter what she chooses to pursue, I will support her, even if she's horrific at it and all she gains is the knowledge that it's not really her thing. But I will not tell her the lie that she can be anything because I refuse to set her up for failure in that way. I refuse to make her feel like a loser for being unable to do things she shouldn’t be able to do anyways. I will not saddle her with that.

I didn’t grow up to be anything I wanted to be. I didn’t grow up to do something great. But I don’t feel like a loser. I shouldn’t have had those expectations in the first place. There are so many things I just can’t do, and the world is too big for me to be something great in the way the world defines greatness. I am what I am. I’m a writer, a mother, a person who desperately wants to inspire change and has nothing to work with but her own life. I’m a woman who desires community and works to make it happen - a person who tries her best to love on the hurting and broken. I am what I am. And I am not a loser.