Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and imagine almost nothing.— Walter Brueggemann
About four years ago, I really disliked introductions. There was nothing wrong with the people whose hands I’d shake, though I dreaded the question they were sure to ask. What do you do? In answering honestly, my sense of identity and self became usurped by expectations and stereotypes that surrounded my new, post-college name: nice to meet you, I’m Just A Nanny. I used the word just subconsciously; it gave me freedom and space from reality, affirming to myself, more than others, that this kind of job was temporary, lesser-than, an in-between thing. There was hesitation in giving my professional vocation validity and respect, dignity and value, because I wasn’t sure it held any. Nannying didn’t correlate with my notions of success, identity, or professional aspiration. Nor did it occur to me in the early years of raising two children who were not my own that something great could come of a humbling vocation, and in getting out of my preconceived ideas of professional “success,” I was getting into the marrow of joy, life and work redefined.
• • •
Entering the post-college workplace as a full-time nanny, or more accurately, a single mom by day, was difficult. Other words that come to mind are ego-bruising, ego-crushing, dream-snuffing, and pity-inducing. In truth, raising children is not those things—it is actually far from it—but it can look that way. Any profession can look that way when reality does not match one’s ideology. Within the first year of introducing myself as I’m Just A Nanny, life had been reduced to tedious, purpose-lacking labor by fulfilling a role that had little to do with my English degree, let alone dreams. I craved the ideology of post-college success—an editorial position, business cards, all expenses paid trips—anything apart from actual life. Choosing to keep a firm grasp on this ideology was to reject reality, dread work, become entitled, and ultimately unhappy. Like C.S. Lewis writes in The Great Divorce, “There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy—that is, to reality.”
When corporately employed friends described the global impact of their work, dialoguing with diplomats, or a youth-at-risk’s success story, I felt the smallness of my victories. Tallying the number of diapers changed, noses wiped, meals prepared, tantrums conquered, miles walked pushing the stroller, trips driven to preschool, shoes tied and stories read, I wondered what it all amounted to, what this had to do with me and the world’s real needs. How had work become so challenging, frustratingly selfless, socially isolating and fear-inducing? How had it become so removed from my post-college ideologies, that now, when I introduced myself, I couldn’t get away from pigeonholing my identity or emphasizing where I failed? I’m just a nanny. After all, I was magnificently qualified—overqualified! Just take a look at me on paper: focused student, active volunteer, teen mentor, campus leader, a stint at Oxford, and I even read an original poem aloud at a gathering of tweed-wearing English profs. How glorious! How employable!
How disillusioned and ideological.
• • •
After nearly four years of raising children, I now see what I missed at the outset: I stood as a human being with more potential than actualization, entangled with an ego unaware of the intensity at which it would be broken. Moving from college in sunny Los Angeles to Seattle with bills to pay, independence to defend, and options lacking, there was little choice. Uninterested in copywriting, the one apply-my-English-degree option, nannying fit the bill. Only temporarily of course. It wasn’t something professionals did. Strangers, too, were happy to verbalize this.
Flying home from Washington D.C. last year, a white-haired man with the United Nations emblem embroidered on his blue blazer sat next to me and began the small talk. After covering his childhood of traveling, the nine languages he spoke, and diplomatic adventures that polished his repute to a fine shine, he then asked the question.
“So what do you do?”
“I’m a full-time nanny,” I answered.
He stared, baffled. “You don’t want to be a nanny, do you?”
“Well, I really love the kids. They’re —”
“Love, that’s completely irrelevant,” he interjected. “What you should do, you wanna know? Find and marry a man who makes, eh, $200,000, enough to cover all the expenses. You can dedicate your time and efforts to charity work. You know can marry a poor man or a rich man. You have a choice. Really, I’m serious.”
I smiled, half amused, half angered, at the audacity of a stranger’s judgment, bewildered by the irony that a foreign diplomat could possess so little diplomacy. Mr. U.N. saw only the white collar, Ivy League ideology of making it, arriving, becoming someone—whatever that meant. Like Dr. Anthony Bradley highlighted in his talk on Economic Personalism, I was no longer human to Mr. U.N., merely a walking ideology, a lesser one at that. In addition to being I’m Just A Nanny, Mr. U.N. also christened me the Unapplied College Degree, You Fell Short of Real Success, Do Something With Your Life Already, Girl.
Nevertheless, Mr. U.N. had a point. I did have choices, and I was ready to move beyond the ones he proposed in order to seek a higher, far more substantial alternative. What if I exiled the notion of anything, anyone, being just—being another label subjugated to the bottom of the social status ladder? What if there was joy to be had, and immeasurable growth, valleys of humility and peaks of wisdom, laughter and life-altering experiences in raising two children that was unlike any other profession in the known universe? What if the two kids I now loved, eternally, were a meaningful career, and not a means to my end, but an end within themselves? What if nannying wasn’t just a stepping stone to a much improved future life, but held dignity, purpose, transformation, and worth all of its own? What if my being, and not just my job, held those things, too?
• • •
And so, from the trenches of a beaten ego striving for ideological success, rose something resembling a humbled spirit, a keener mind, a broader sense of humor, and a lasting revelation. Maybe God’s work in the world involved me, but wasn’t about me. To be so totally submersed in others’ needs at every given moment altered my beliefs regarding work, particularly service. Since choosing to live into my present vocation, no matter circumstance or duration, life and work are best summarized by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. / I awoke and saw that life was service. / I acted and behold, service was joy.”
There was a time I thought meeting the world’s needs—my egotistical needs—amounted to skyscrapers, titles beneath my name, big cities, and college degrees to support the lifestyle. Otherwise, a voice whispered, what will you amount to? Today, I have plunked such questions like stones into a river, letting a stronger current of Truth carry them downstream. Now there are the verbs of Christ—go, be, know, come to me—and what inevitably follows—peace, joy, providence, reconciliation, freedom, a new way of seeing the world, life. How disheartening then, in light of this, to miss out on moments with two engaging, hilarious, compassionate kids because I insist my life must look different. I am finished with preferring my ideology of work over the joy of my reality. I am finished promoting the deceitful notion that work ought to serve my ego, and am ready to accept what is not always easy, though nonetheless true. Maybe in being stripped away from my insufficient ideologies, I can better recognize Christ’s imagining of my short human life.
Christ knows my circumstances and sorrows, my pain and frustration, the cultural pressures I sling on my back, my internal anxiety and the applesauce flung on my shirt. He sees my humanness laid bare, and in spite of it, through it, or even because of it, Christ is able to reveal dignity, identity and potential for my life—your life, too—in a way I cannot dream up. It’s more freeing than a week’s paid vacation, more multidimensional than a kaleidoscope, and as real as the wind that cannot be held, only experienced. He liberates all from the notion of just and infuses us with the Truth of who we are, where we are. Key moments in human history are made because of Christ’s intervention in our lives, when we reject the just of the world and embrace an otherworldly Truth.
When Frederick Douglass recognized the fallacy of the oppressive culture in which he lived and rejected the notion of being just a slave, a new man emerged, one who took great risks to fight the physical and ideological shackles of his time, changing not only the course of his life, but that of a nation. When marine biologist Rachel Carson penned The Sea Around Us and Silent Spring, highlighting our lack of stewardship for and destruction of nature in the ’50s and ’60s, Carson’s imagination, like Douglass’s, was alive. Not only did Carson reject the ideology of consumerism and America’s exploitation of natural resources, but she started a global conservation movement. Though I am neither a brilliant 19th century abolitionist like Douglass nor the mother of an environmental legacy like Carson, I am beginning to see life with renewed imagination. I am beginning to understand, and more significantly believe, that there is infinitely more to a human being than meets the eye, and that Christ, all along, has seen—sees—us this way. The question is no longer whether we have 20/20 vision, but whether we have the audacity of Christ, choosing to see through the life-giving lense of imagination. As Albert Einstein understood it, “Knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be.”