My cousin Tegan recently graduated from Michigan State with a degree in art and a minor in Mandarin. Because what normal English-speaking teen contemplating a minor in a foreign language doesn’t go for an ancient, tonal, character-based language over say, oh I don’t know, Spanish? Tegan, that’s who. Also, she’s an absolute self-taught wiz of a computer programmer. No bigs.
Clearly, Tegan chose a path. A weird path. And she absolutely excelled. That’s awesome.
Yesterday, though, I thought back to my (non-)role in some of those moments where she was deciding on a path and had to laugh a bit at myself as I thought about the concept of validation. You see, back when Tegan was maybe a junior in high school, she was basically good at everything and trying to figure out where to go with that — both school- and major-wise. Naturally, my dream for her was a four year tenure at Michigan Tech for a chemistry degree. Because of course that’s what a bright young woman should want to do. See how well it worked out for me?
Obviously, I had zero effect on Tegan’s choice (unless she was actually leaning toward a chemistry degree at Michigan Tech and my life somehow turned her off, but I choose not to entertain that possibility with any real seriousness), but I sure as heck could have been a lot more supportive and/or helpful. I could have said, “It’s a tough choice, dear Tegan, maybe we should talk about what lights you up… so what do you love? What beautiful things do you imagine for your future? Where do you feel at home? Do you want me to share with you how I made my choices?”
All of this came flooding back over lunch on Friday. I had traveled two hours north to Minocqua for a day long meeting and spent the brief lunch break chatting with Mike, a local pain psychologist. He said something about all psych folks being “fruit cakes” and I said that’s why I loved my psychologist so much — because he validates my crazy (good news: my grief process and dealing with depression appear to be normal as of Wednesday, also my injection of humor to serious situations is a good thing, sweet validation). Then… I’m not sure how we got on the topic, exactly, but Mike’s high school aged son is interested in a career in scientific writing (he sounds to be a grade-A introvert and super into learning, definitely a good candidate) and when I recommended a more scientific route (as opposed to a more English/writing-based approach), Mike mentioned that that was his son’s goal after having seen the husband of one of the local pediatricians perform some chemistry demonstrations at his high school.
Those chem demos? Performed by none other than my sophomore year p-chem lab partner from good old Michigan Tech, John (because small world). Ah ha! And I instantly started pushing — oh he’s just got to go to Michigan Tech for a chemistry degree, both John and I did, obviously the best of decisions. See!! Seeee!! Seeeeeeee?!?!
And in that record-scratching-to-a-stop-moment, probably because I had just admitted to requiring validation from my psychologist only minutes before, I recognized what I was doing. Did it stop me? No, I don’t think so. But it at least made me think about it. And how much I hated this very thing and yet, I saw it everywhere and all the time and I was guilty of it constantly.
I first recognized that need for validation when I was finishing up in grad school. I knew, like deep down in my weary bones knew, that I did not want to go into academia. I didn’t want to come up with the ideas or write the grants (ha) or run my own lab or be responsible for other people’s careers in a competitive, fund-limited field. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life studying one small thing. I wanted something different, something that used my talents and passions in a different way, but it was hard to even see any other options. Honestly, I’m just ridiculously lucky that I stumbled into scientific writing. I barely even registered it as a choice before coming across the job that I ultimately got. And when I did get it, people were pretty pissy with me — for opting out of academia, for going in not just a different direction, but the wrong direction.
I was mad about that for a long time. I wanted my professors to be proud of me, but as I walked away, I felt like everyone behind me was shaking their heads in disappointment instead. Then again, how could any of them know anything other than academia, the path they chose? And given that that was the case, how could I honestly expect them to encourage me otherwise? Who doesn’t like to be validated??? Who among us doesn’t honestly feel like they need it, especially when the choice they’ve made was a hard one? And no doubt, academia is amongst the hardest.
After the meeting in Minocqua ended, I got back in my car and drove south past home and all the way to Milwaukee for the annual Call To Action meeting. I made it just in time to hear Zach Wahls speak; you probably remember Zach as the eloquent young man who, raised by gay parents, went viral on YouTube after testifying in favor of marriage equality in front of the Iowa legislature a few years ago. That young man is now a few years older and a polished and professional advocate for equality and social justice. It was an amazing talk; many would disagree on principle. Similarly, this morning, I heard one of the most brilliant and prolific theologians of our time, Sister Joan Chittister, speak about the importance of the public intellectual for the evolution of social and institutional change; again, many would and do disagree.
And, in bringing these beautiful talks back to that idea of validation that I’ve been turning over in my mind, I’m left wondering: how much of this religious strife does validation account for? How much of that worry about the eternal salvation of that-guy-over-there-doing-the-wrong-thing’s soul is really a worry about the validation of our own???? I mean, if that guy is somehow doing the right thing, what does it say about my personal prejudices?
I don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s not at all. But it seems related. Like maybe most of our arguments against equality, change, growth, evolution might actually be about fear — about lack of validation for the status quo, for the habits, patterns, and beliefs we hold dear. Maybe instead, we should all consider saying what I should have said to Tegan all those years ago — you do you, whatever lights you up.
PS: I met Joan Chittister today. In person. So, yeah, that lights me up. No Mandarin necessary.