I was having second-thoughts about the importance of my career choice, until I realized how much someone in particular needed what I had to offer.
My downfall began when I became amazed at the invention of the side scan sonar magnetometer.
My kids are working on a plan to locate and salvage a lost shipwreck. They've mapped and diagrammed, jotted down supply lists, and, of course, talked about how they will split up and subsequently spend the money. All that remains is to learn how to scuba dive, hire a boat some gear and they'll be in business!
To help expose them to some...unconsidered logistics, I found a documentary series called The Sea Hunters, which follows a dive team lead by Clive Cussler (of Sahara fame) that takes on the job of finding some of the most mysterious or iconic lost shipwrecks in history. One of the more tedious ways that they go about doing that is by setting up a search grid and dragging a side scan sonar magnetometer back and forth across this grid, like mowing a vast, wet lawn. Thousands of feet below the surface, this thing can detect ferrous metal and pop a little 3D graphic of it's shape onto the monitor onboard the ship.
I was in awe at the mind that invented that. I imagined the person who had lost something important to the ocean floor and who said, "You know what, I'll bet I'm not the only one who has lost stuff down there. I'm going to make something that will solve that problem for everyone!"
To take my wonderment to the next level, we watched dive teams in the aftermath of an oversea plane crash salvage the shattered plane piece by coin-sized piece and rebuild it in order to determine what had gone wrong and caused the crash. I watched the crash investigator examine a circuit board, pieced together and rebuilt onto a sheet of plexiglass, so that they could find out which circuits had been overloaded and examine the pattern of the burn marks. These were discrete pieces the size of nuts and bolts that had been scattered over the ocean floor and these amazing minds were able to find them and piece them back together like a giant jigsaw puzzle and solve the mystery so that tomorrow's flights would always be safer than yesterday's.
Meanwhile, I had washed the dishes and read a novel that day.
My amazement at mankind's achievements necessarily brought my own lack of contribution into focus. And once I became aware of it, I couldn't stop noticing it. My husband, the Engineer, helps figure out how to get oil and gas from the belly of the earth so that our hospitals have power and so that people don't freeze to death in the winter, and so that these plastic components that make up the laptop I'm typing on can be produced affordably for the masses. I have friends that do amazing things - they run companies and represent others in court and teach at universities and heal people in hospitals. I surveyed the land from what I perceived was their elevated height...and felt myself slipping into obscurity and irrelevance in my own eyes. My amazement at the accomplishments of others took an uncomfortable turn as an insidious voice in my head started narrating:
"Amazing! That person has actually done something with their life. Don't you wish you could say the same?"
I felt twelve years old in my own eyes. Everyone else seemed so fluent in the language of living while I was stuttering my way through, feeling like an imbecile.
At the tail end of several days of being repeatedly impressed by others' competency and feeling less and less like I was a properly developed adult, I found myself feeling total emotional emptiness as I walked my kids home from baseball practice. There was the usual cacophony of chatter amongst them...except for one, who remained sullen and silent. When he fell into step beside me, I put my arm around his shoulders and just let it rest there; what exactly was bothering him, I didn't know. But what I did know was that it sucked to feel alone, and at least I could do something about that.
After a few paces, he slipped his arm around my waist and out of the corner of my eye, I saw his chin tremble. I gave a little squeeze. He gave a little squeeze back. When we were close to the house, I sent the others on ahead and slowed to a stop with the one who now had tears trickling down his cheeks.
"What's going on, bud?" I looked him in the eye and he fell into me, clinging to me, "Everyone has been such a jerk to me for the last two hours. You are my only comfort right now! I'm never going to leave your side!"
Three sentences from him was all it took for me to realize something amazing: I know this kid! I've spent years studying him, observing him across a spectrum of situations and stimuli, experimenting with ways to motivate and encourage and inspire him. I've made him my life's work. And because of that, I was uniquely prepared to know how to help guide him along this bump in his path.
As we maneuvered through his situation and I saw his heart become lighter, mine soared. The book of Proverbs gives some beautiful parenting advice: "Educate a child according to his own way, and when he is old he will not depart from it." There is not one gold-star, guaranteed, cookie-cutter system that will work for every kid. Each is a unique person; born with some helpful tools already in their tool box and others that will need to be acquired and instructed how to use. Like any complex field, figuring out which tools are present and which ones are missing requires dedicated study.
These five beautiful, intricate souls are my field of research and expertise. John F. Kennedy's mother, Rose, raised nine children - several of whom figured prominently in the public eye. She said:
"I looked on child rearing not only as a work of love and duty but as a profession that was fully as interesting and challenging as any honorable profession in the world and one that demanded the best that I could bring to it."
I may not be solving the problem of curing a persistent disease or sourcing reliable energy or figuring out how to recover planes from the bottom of the ocean. But I solving the world-encompassing problems of a little boy who felt emotionally defeated and didn't know how to move forward. And a boy who knows how to face defeat and move forward will become a man who can survive the inevitable defeats of life and accept the risk intrinsic to great discovery.
Standing here, ready to start another day with these five unique minds, five strong-beating hearts and their mass of churning arms and legs ready to take them out and let them get their hands on the world, I'm smiling to myself, satisfied in my career choice, energized by the realization that I'm investing five-fold in a brighter future for humanity.