I wish I could say that hearing her childhood story was unusual, or in any way surprising. It was too commonplace, too normal to even shock me anymore. I had asked a simple conversation-starting question. But underneath it was an ignorant assumption.
“Had you always wanted to be a nurse?” I asked. She proceeded to tell me that she hadn’t. She had longed to be an accountant, maybe even a nun. She, as we all do when we are young, had dreams. What she did not have was the luxury of choice.
One of nine kids, she had four older brothers, the lottery, if you will, for a young girl in Malawi. Her parents scrimped and sacrificed and put everything they had into those four boys. Everything. Hope, like a bubble, was expanding and rising. Maybe, just maybe, their family could be released from the grip of poverty.
Then – every story here seems to have a tragic then – within a few short weeks and one year later, every single one of those older brothers died. Every single one. The tragedy is that it’s not a tragedy, it’s normalized here. Simple things end lives here: high blood pressure, a walk to school, a simple trip to the clinic, a fever, a headache, childbirth. Life is fragile and short. She told me these facts with a sense of resignation. Those boys each had had jobs, that brought money to the home and helped pay for the school fees of the younger siblings. They each had so much potential to provide for their aging parents. The food, the health, the survival of the rest of the family had all been on their shoulders.
But with their deaths came the blow to her dreams. It was now up to her to provide. “I didn’t have a choice about being a nurse,” she told me. “The schooling at the time was free and my family needed me to work. So that’s what I did.” So, this young woman became the provider for her family, as any good Malawian daughter would do. No longer a dreamer, she was a worker, doing everything possible to survive and feed her family. “But I am thankful for the work,” she said.
Thankful. I couldn’t think of how she could possibly feel thankful.
We sat in empty silence as I pondered this reality, and then she went back to charting in the underfunded, over-capacity, heart-breaking public hospital I was working in with her.
I wanted to press further, but stopped myself. Any question I wanted to ask, of how she made sense of this loss, of how she could be thankful to God through the lens of her suffering, or how she had any hope at all, felt out of place. What did I understand of her self-sacrifice? What did I understand of the notion of “not having a choice,” but choosing to be thankful anyway? I chose nursing as a calling, perhaps over-spiritualizing the decision. She was doing the noble work of doing the faithful and loyal thing by getting work so that her family could survive and carry on, even with her dreams dead and gone.
We are both nurses, but I had the luxury of choosing my profession when she didn’t get to.
I felt the magnitude of the excess, the entitlement and the wealth of my own experience heavy on me like wet clothing. I get so caught up in wanting my work life to be the most meaningful it can be. I want to be filled with wonder and satisfaction and fulfilment every day in my work – whether as a wife, a mother, a nurse or ministry. Meanwhile, missing the beauty of the very fact that I get to do the thing I love, at all.
Without shaming those who have material wealth, or pitying those who do not, the reality is that wherever we find ourselves, in whatever life situation, we do still have one choice in common. That choice will always and forever be, whether or not to be thankful for what we have been given, to give ourselves fully to whatever situation we find ourselves in, and to work for the glory of God alone.
“Whether rich or poor, I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength”