December 30, 2010

Elizabeth Harmer Dionne: The Lone Wolf (or The Semmelweis Reflex – Part 2)

Elizabeth Harmer Dionne, a retired attorney and mother of four, is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in political science at Boston College.  You can read The Semmelweis Reflex (Part 1) here.

I once received a critical e-mail from an acquaintance that caught me completely off-guard.  Nasty-grams say more about the sender than the recipient, and I typically dismiss them coolly and accordingly.  However, this one got under my skin, and I couldn’t shake its influence.  In hindsight, I would characterize my reaction as downright neurotic.

I finally realized that it wasn’t the letter itself that bothered me but the social power of the sender.  I inhabited the periphery of a social sphere in which she was firmly established, and I worried that others shared her view of me, because she had more influence with them than I.

Dream killers can come in surprisingly subtle forms.  One of these can be the desire to belong, to be a full member of the pack.  But to pursue a dream, one may have to strike out as a “lone wolf” on one’s own path, rather than following the beaten trail.  The pack may view this as rejection, even if the dream has nothing to do with them. National Geographic Joel Santoro

Carving out temporal and physical space to pursue a dream may mean saying “no” to many good things, including full involvement in particular social circles.  As I prepared to leave home for college, a wise bishop advised me to pursue my studies when my fellow students played bridge.  The content of his advice was dated (even then!), but the principle was sound: sacrificing “hanging out” for the sake of serious study furthered my particular dreams, even as it limited my social life.

Sometimes our dreams threaten another’s paradigms, or perhaps theirs threaten ours.  When someone asks us to “think outside the box,” our instinctive reaction may be to circle the wagons to protect what is known, comfortable, and predictable.  We may have the best of intentions (protecting a loved one from harm, trying to help someone achieve realistic success), and yet we may inadvertently assist in the death of a dream.

My husband has remarkably fine motor control.  He dreamed of being a doctor, but his mother, a country nurse who had observed first-hand the rigors of rural practice, talked him out of applying to medical school.  He completed a Ph.D. and has had a satisfying career.  However, part of him still regrets his lost medical career.  One of his favorite parts of being a research scientist was small animal surgery, where he touched the essence of life and put his motor skills to work.  One of his great joys now is furthering our daughter’s interest in medicine and dissection.  Because he relinquished a dream of medicine, it is doubly satisfying to him now to do everything within his power to foster her dream.

Two-wolves-fight-play-513237_14026_470x300
Source:  National Geographic

The impetus for killing a dream is by no means always innocuous.  Jealousy and insecurity are frequent motivating factors for dream-killing.  If she succeeds, then what does her success say about my choices or my seeming lack of success?

One of the reasons Ignac Semmelweiss’s colleagues refused to implement his protocols for washing their hands and medical instruments is because doing so would implicate them in the spread of a lethal disease.  Thousands of their patients had already died because they had not followed basic hygiene.

Part of the ongoing tension between mothers who work inside or outside of the home is the sense that each has rejected the others’ social sphere.  Stay-at-home mothers inhabit a world of dense social connections, from parks to playdates to school.  Mothers who work outside the home have a different social web of professional colleagues, networks, and water coolers.

When a woman seemingly abandons one sphere for another to pursue her dream, those left “behind” (figuratively speaking) wonder if her decision means she has rejected them.  The very existence of these separate spheres can create a sense of exclusion that is largely situational but sometimes intentional, as packs close ranks against each other and the lone wolves.

Christ advised both that we withhold judgment and that we refrain from plucking the mote from another’s eye until we have removed the beam from our own.  I have always interpreted these verses in a salvational sense—if we are focused on another’s salvation, then clearly we are spending too little time worrying about our own.

Wolf-portrait-513195_14035_470x300
Source:  National Geographic

However, the verses can also apply to dreams.  If we are busy killing another’s dream, what does that say about our own?  Are we spending too little time envisioning our own best lives?  Are we afraid of where that vision might lead?  If we examine our own dreams (instead of criticizing another’s), the results may be both frightening and exhilarating.

In Reviving Ophelia (a “must-read” book for any mother of an adolescent girl), psychologist Mary Pipher notes that the girls who navigate the teen-age years most successfully are those with a sense of self sufficient to withstand peer pressure.  They know their values and their purpose, and they act accordingly, bucking the group and going it alone if they have to.

These sound like skills to carry one successfully through all of life.  It requires courage, but sometimes it pays to be a lone wolf.

***
Can you think of an instance when being part of the pack was the right decision?  What about when it was right to strike out on your own?  Which one do you do better?  Or have you learned to strike a balance?

When you strike out and pursue something new (get married, have children, start a career), how can you convey that you will be a better member of your collective pack if for a time you are a lone wolf?

  • Julia

    Thank you Elizabeth – I just read part one as well! It’s taken me a long time to be comfortable with my social circle and not covet the other. It’s also an art to pursue your own dreams for the right reasons.

  • http://mariacarr.com Maria

    Elizabeth, your post opened my eyes to an aspect of my life I had not recognized. Thank you.

  • http://scienceteachermommy.blogspot.com Science Teacher Mommy

    What an awesome post. I was lucky to be raised with a mother who worked as a nurse AND stayed home most of the time. She told me once that she was tired of working, non-working moms always comparing themselves to one another. The point is, she said, that we need all kinds of women to help raise our kids and to run society. The false dichotomy creates a sort of competition that is helpful to no one.
    I think I spent too many years desperately wishing, not just to be a part of the pack, but to be the alpha, when my personality and attitudes much better suited me to lone wolf status. I wasted so much energy on jealousy and striving for all the wrong things.
    I hope I’m a little wiser now about the place that fits me the the best.

  • Edna

    Elizabeth-
    I really like your post. Lately I’ve wondered how I could be more supportive of all the other “lone wolves” (and perhaps encourage support for myself). I think we all tend to try convert others to our own way of thinking- often without fully evaluating the merits of others’ ideas.

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