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Courage in an Unlikely Place

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“Courage is not the absence of fear. Or the certainty of a positive outcome. Courage is understanding that the road ahead may be hard and dangerous … and choosing to take the path anyway.”—Unknown


My life journey began when I was twenty-one. I had recently graduated from college and moved back home to live with my dad. I was working part-time at a lingerie boutique and not pursuing anything more permanent. Simply, I was at a standstill. Where I was wasn’t where I wanted to be, but where I wanted to be I didn’t know. Therein laid my dilemma. So I packed up my entire belongings, waved goodbye to the town in North Carolina where I had grown up and made so many memories, and I moved west to South Dakota.


I’m sure you’re thinking, “South Dakota?! Why?” But I can assure you, there is no logical or reasonable explanation to that question and there are days when I still wonder what I was thinking. However, at the time it seemed like a fantastic idea. In my mind South Dakota was a wide open land full of possibilities. Endless possibilities. Well, part of that is true. South Dakota is certainly wide open. Beautiful country, the Heartland. Maybe the most beautiful part of the United States. Flat prairie for miles; rich green grass and crops in the summer, crisp gold in the autumn, snowy white all winter long. Distinct seasons, each more beautiful than the last and a surprise around every corner. When I moved to South Dakota, I had never seen a real snow. Of course it snows in the mountains of North Carolina, where I attended college, but snow down in Dixie doesn’t even begin to compare to Midwestern snowstorms.


And possibilities do exist, they just aren’t endless as I had dreamed. In my big plan I was going to go back to college and get a degree in nursing. But as with most plans that I make, the details were too fuzzy and the execution flawed. My parents had made it clear to me that I was on my own financially. I knew that I would have to work a full-time job while in school to support myself and pay my bills. Hard work has never been an issue for me; in fact, I relish the feeling of earning what is mine. It has more meaning that way. I just didn’t account for making barely above minimum wage and hour shortages at work.


I got a job as a CNA in a long-term care facility. When I was hired, my position was full-time on second shift. More often than not, I worked a third shift with sporadic evenings thrown in. Sometimes I worked doubles, up to eighteen hours consecutively, for a total work week of fifty-six hours. Other times, I’d only get twelve hours for the entire week. I survived on caffeine. Mostly Diet Coke and Starbucks. I would have made coffee at home, but I never got the hang of measuring it and always ended up with watery coffee or super bitter coffee.


Working in healthcare is not easy. It takes a lot out of you. As a CNA, your job is both physically and emotionally tiring. Many evenings when I got home, I’d take two Extra Strength Tylenol and put a heating pad on my back. In long-term care facilities, the residents are there until they die. It’s a harsh reality that I had to face. Even the deaths of residents that you aren’t close to affect you. You never get used to it, but you learn to prepare yourself for it. If you need to cry, that’s okay. You give yourself 10 minutes and let the emotions come, but then you pull yourself together. There are other residents and patients that need care; you have to put on a brave face for others.


Being a caregiver can be tedious and people burnout frequently in healthcare. I have to admit that is my biggest fear. After putting so much into getting to this point, what happens if I crash and burn in ten years? I’ll have two bachelor’s degrees under my belt and a mountain of student loans. Going back to school (yet again) is not an option. Graduate school? Perhaps. But what would I study? I’m not alone in my concerns. I’ve met many in my age bracket (twenty-one to twenty-five) who feel the same way. The pressure to succeed is overwhelming. Our success is judged by what we wear, where we live, the kinds of cars we drive. All material things.


I had a very wise professor my senior year of college who told me, “There’s a lot of pressure to succeed from many different angles. But, no matter what success looks like on paper, if you are not happy, none of that will matter.”


He’s right. Success is not what we own. Success is overcoming challenges and feeling accomplished in our own rights. Not everyone faces the same obstacles in life, so why do we measure our level of success against one another? Our society has set a standard for what success looks like, but for many, it’s impossible to reach.


I grew up among a set of people who were successful. I never wanted for anything. But neither was I spoiled. I lived comfortably. On my own now, I’ve come to the realization that I will never again live at that level of comfort. Well, unless I discover the cure for the common cold. I will always have to work hard and my savings account will never house a nest egg. As much as I would like, I will never be able to afford a Mercedes or BMW. Some day I might be able to buy a house, but that day is far into my future. These are my realities.


Despite what you may think, knowing these truths doesn’t discourage me. Because I’m happy. My life is my own. I’m not controlled by keeping up appearances or competing with trends. Sure, money gets tight and there are months when I can’t pay my bills. But for those times and struggles, the good continues to outweigh the bad. I know myself better than ever. My personal goals are clearer than they’ve been before. I’ve found an inner strength that I never knew existed. In a way, it’s euphoric.


I moved to South Dakota on a whim thinking I’d be the Southern Belle to charm a handsome cowboy and live happily ever after. But I found that I’m so much more than that. So far, my journey has not been what I expected—and I suspect it will continue to surprise me. You never know, I may even learn how to make coffee.

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