10.03.2013

Foolish in the World's Eyes

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Recent times have given us heated and largely constructive discussion on successful women choosing between career advancement and familial fulfillment.  For example, we've heard from Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg about Silicon Valley, and Anne-Marie Slaughter about the highest levels of government.

And we have dueling opinions on whether Ivy League moms are allowed to stay at home or not.  Keli Goff from the Guardian says if you're going to take up a precious spot at such an institution, you owe a debt to society to contribute in the workplace.  Princeton alum Anne-Marie McGinnis counters that that degree is useful for parenting and for whatever happens later and is therefore not in any way wasted.

Goff's is a brave (some might say foolish) position to take, given how personal the choice is to work or stay at home, and given how miffed some stay-at-home moms can get (and rightly so) when what they choose to spend their time on is seen as second-best.  Whatever you believe (and I tend to side more with McGinnis than Goff - as much as it pains this Penn Quaker to agree with a Princeton Tiger), it seems fair and natural to inquire about the good in spending all that time and money to prepare for a profession (medicine, law, business) and then not actually use the knowledge, contacts, and credentials that that time and money got you.  In other words, while I largely disagree with Goff, I appreciate her opinion and give her space to voice it. 

It seems this is currently seen as a women's issue, since it is assumed that the woman and not the man must make a big choice when the kids start to arrive.  This is changing rapidly, though; many successful young men today know that they will pair off with a successful young woman, and that that successful young woman will want to have some semblance of a career, and that that therefore means the men will have to step up on the parenting side of things.  I'm less about the outcome and more about the process - as long as men and women are treating each other as equals and willing to submit their own agendas for the other's, I don't care what choices are actually made - but that outcome seems really positive.

At any rate, leaving the gender issue aside for a minute (even as I've just explained why gender is at the core of this discussion), I think a lot of the dissonance felt by Goff and others stems from this notion of putting yourself in a position to be really successful and then walking away, perhaps for good.  That's just not how we do things in America.

And so when someone does that, it's really hard to figure out why, and we may even feel we've been cheated.  Think about how we react to people in another profession - sports.  The anger we feel when an athlete clearly gifted with transcendent talents doesn't put the time in to become great at his or her craft is the anger of someone who longed to see that athlete fulfill his or her potential and was cheated out of being able to see it by that athlete's unwillingness to follow through.  I think this is part of what Goff is getting at.

To be sure, I'm not condoning laziness: if you opt out of something just because it's too hard and you don't want to push yourself, any attempt to glorify your alternative choices is going to ring hollow.  But if you opt out because you feel you can do even more important work elsewhere, and to heck with what others think, then I say "attaboy" and "attagirl."

For Christians, this is an important perspective.  For we are not always called to take what the world thinks is the most successful path possible given our talents and opportunities.  In fact, sometimes we are called to do things that may look quite foolish in the world's eyes, like walking away from the career path of an Ivy League grad to stay home and focus on raising kids (or, alternatively, parlaying that same education into a job that is a significant downgrade in pay and status but that maximizes social and spiritual impact, like youth pastor, medical missions, or social services). 

Here in America, the peer pressure we feel when we make those tough choices can be particularly fierce, especially if we are fortunate enough to have attended elite academic institutions.  If we come from means, our downward mobility threatens to lurch the family into a class level they thought they had long elevated above.  Or if we do not come from means, our radical choices can seem an ungrateful dismissal of all of the hard work that was put into getting us into a good college.  Friends who have no familial tie to us may also and unwittingly join in the chorus, offering a quizzical or patronizing look when told of the life choices we have made.

We are not necessarily supposed to automatically throw away all of our privileges, like the ones that come from attending an elite university.  But nor are we to automatically assume that we are to keep them for ourselves without ever questioning if a huge and jarring downward shift is what we are meant to do next.  Rest assured that if God is leading you to make a radical move, you may not find much support from family and friends in seeing that difficult decision through.  They may even write articles about how foolish your choices are.  Just remember whose opinion really matters, in terms of what's wise and what's foolish.
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