Saturday, March 29, 2014

Lenten Project: Day Twenty-two

"When I grow up, I want to be a marine mammal biologist!"

I said this many times as a kid and teenager, because I had my heart set on it.  I don't know where this desire originated--maybe one of our family trips to Sea World--but I latched on to the idea that I could be someone who studied and discovered more about God's creatures.  And I was consistent in it, never changing my mind or seriously considering other possibilities.

I adored the World Wildlife Fund, even though my parents told me it was worldly (those tree-huggers didn't understand that the world would end in fire, so their conservation efforts were futile and misdirected, amen?). I got books about marine mammals and created quizzes to test my knowledge.  I collected anything I could get that had a dolphin or whale on it.  I used old calendars as posters on my bedroom walls.

But my family, with my parents as the ringleaders, and my younger sisters following their example, mocked me.

"Why do you want to be a marine mammal biologist, Hannah?!  How does that serve the Lord?"

For a Fundamentalist female, there are few choices in what kind of life a girl can have, or even desire.  For a missionary kid or pastor's kid, the options are even more limited, because the belief that "people are dying and going to hell today," was kept ever forefront in our minds by our family's vocation.  How could we choose anything other than a life of service to save the world?  And by world, I mean people, because animals are just creatures, far below humanity in God's esteem.

The choices I felt I had, when I was privately honest with myself about the futility of pursing anything to do with environmentalism, or conservationism, or even just plain old science, were to be a nurse, a school teacher, pastor's wife, missionary, and, of course, the highest calling for a girl: a wife and mother.

I had no role models besides other missionary women.  My own mother had an unaccredited degree in elementary education from a Fundamentalist college, and now she was a wife, mother, missionary, and church piano player.  So this notion of mine that I could do something different with my life puzzled my parents, I'm sure.

And they did all they could to discourage it.  "You can't glorify God if you're pursuing your own interests....Sometimes God asks that we sacrifice our lives to his service....Don't you want to serve God, Hannah?...You'll never be a marine mammal biologist, so just give up that crazy idea now....If you pursue this, you'll only ever end up a traffic director in the parking lot at Sea World."

Not pictured: the parking lot is bigger than the park!

Yes, more than once I was told to just give up.  I remember the pain and anger I felt at being told that what I loved and desired was worthless, that my dream wasn't good enough to please God. And I honestly couldn't understand why studying a part of God's creation was so bad, anyway.  I could see that saving souls and saving dolphins weren't exactly the same in value, but why did that mean I couldn't still choose to do the latter and remain pleasing in God's sight?

This is me, petting a dolphin.  I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

I went to college in 2001 and majored in biology.  When I registered and declared my major, I did so with a bit of obstinate glee: "I'll show you all!"  My whole family openly took bets about how many weeks it would take for me to quit and change my major to a more "respectable" vocation.  I enjoyed my classes, though, and stuck with it. I even took zoology my second semester, way before I should have, since it was an advanced class and I wasn't prepared for real science that wasn't just out of a textbook (which is all I'd had, being homeschooled). I loved it.

My family still mocked, saying, "When are you going to change your major, Hannah?  Just admit it already! Be a teacher; you'd be good at that."

Between my freshman and sophomore years, the years of pressure and mocking from my family combined with the similar cultural expectations of women at BJU to finally bring me to the breaking point.  And I quietly, shamefully changed my major to English.  Not English Education, because I didn't want to teach.  No, just English.  Because I liked to read.  A lot. I figured, if I couldn't have one thing I loved, I'd go for another thing I loved, and maybe they'd stop making fun of me.  Sure enough, the sarcastic comments stopped once I was in an acceptable degree program.

Looking back, I know I probably never would have worked directly with marine mammals. For one thing, I'm scared of deep water (too many Jaws marathons late at night will do that).  I have an irrational fear of putting my face underwater, too, probably developed when I nearly drowned in the rough Atlantic during a beach trip on the seaward side of Grenada in the mid-90s.  I'll never forget the overwhelming helplessness when I felt the pressure of the deep water on my body, realised I had no more air in my lungs, and couldn't figure out in which direction was the surface.  I now associate the feeling of being underwater with a resignation that death is imminent.

I'll keep my feet firmly planted on dry ground, thankyouverymuch. Let the fishies come to me.

Yet, I can't help but wonder if there really is no way to honour God in a vocation like that. Could I not have ended up as some sort of researcher?  A scientist seeking to promote the care of God's creation?  Why is that so disreputable and shameful?  And even if I'd ended up working at Sea World the rest of my life, why would that have made me a failure in my family's eyes?  Can't a Christian serve God anywhere, even in the Sea World parking lot?  More questions that Fundamentalism can't satisfactorily answer.

My youngest sister is about to go away to BJU, and she wants to be an archaeologist.  Yet no one in the family makes fun of her, even though her dream is way more unreachable than mine ever was.  Not only is it a vocation not on the list of acceptable ones for Fundamentalist women, but it's a career that is almost impossible to achieve without a handful of terminal degrees (from reputable, accredited colleges, which BJU is not).  My jealous little heart beats violently with indignation that she gets a "free pass" to pursue the improbable, with full encouragement from everyone in our family, while I was mocked and shot down till I caved and gave up.  I'm trying to be happy for her and encouraging, but it's difficult to forget the past, especially when every girl (but one, the lucky dog!) in my family has followed the same path to BJU, and ended up married to a Fundamentalist within a week of graduation.  Our journeys into BJU all look the same, except I was the only one mocked and belittled for my choice of major.
Join the conversation
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Did you family approve, or steer you in another direction?
Do you think certain vocations are more pleasing to God than others?