During a recent trip to London, I was inspired by a visit to the Florence Nightingale Museum, dedicated to the nurse who found her calling during the 19th century. On the same visit, I became inspired by a happy, modern-day woman who had found her calling, too.
The Nightingale museum successfully transports visitors to the Victorian era when convention and propriety ruled. For Britain's upper class young ladies, life was confined to marriage and motherhood. Pleasing and commendable for most, the notion chafed against a young Florence who found purpose in public service instead.
In an early essay, Florence bemoaned the limited choices available to women of her class. She claimed they prevented women from putting their "energies and intellect" to better use.
Florence can't simply be described as anti-establishment or feminist; she was more complex. Her life was imbued with faith and spirituality and infused with her father's love for learning. He tutored Florence in traditional studies as well as "male-centric" courses like mathematics and statistics.
Florence discovered her love for nursing while still a child as she cared for family members and servants during a flu epidemic.
We shouldn't be too surprised to find Florence's parents refusing her call. In 19th century Britain, upper class "work" was frowned upon -- especially as it related to women. Worse, Victorian nurses hailed from the lower class and carried a reputation as drunks.
In the midst of frustration, Florence suffered a bout of depression but remained stalwart by finding clandestine ways to pursue her nursing studies. Faith also played a role in her coming of age. Before Florence's 17th birthday, she heard the voice of God calling her to service.
Ultimately, there's lots to consider about the life of this innovator, leader and social reformer who revolutionized patient care. A prolific writer, Florence also wrote for the masses and incorporated visual statistics when evaluating the relative effectiveness of hospital treatments and environments. Her focus on prevention and hygiene proved her visionary -- even by today's standards.
There are a few ironic twists to her story, too. Breaking social norms in pursuit of her calling, she was later credited as a galvanizing medical force during the Crimean War. Equally compelling is that Florence rose to enormous heights of influence and popularity. She ranked second in admiration to Queen Victoria herself, the monarch responsible for society's restrictive norms.
My visit to the Nightingale museum also presented me with a modern day example of finding one's calling, even at a later age.
I discovered it in Jane Cartwright, a woman portraying the famed "lady with the lamp" to a group of young school children that day. Jane entertained, educated and engaged her young visitors. While delighting her charges, she brought Florence Nightingale to life with demonstrations, questions and anecdotal tales.
As Jane finished her performance, I asked her for a photo and inquired, "How did you end up in this job?"
She smiled broadly and said, "I just sort of fell into it."
Jane enrolled in her first acting class at 29, an advanced age for those aspiring to the theater. Meanwhile, she was ensconced in a profession that would have likely taken her to retirement.
"I was in a civil service job for years, sitting in a chair," she laughed.
Pursuing acting on the side, she ultimately decided to take a full plunge.
"If I don't do it now, I may never do it," she said of her calling to perform.
Today, Jane Cartwright does more than bring the iconic nurse alive for visitors at the Nightingale museum. At London's Transport Museum, she plays a 1930s housewife. Alternately, she takes on the role of Miss Raffle, housekeeper at Linley Sambourne House. Here, she employs daily entries from old family diaries to bring alive ordinary circumstances from the 1890s.
Though quiet in demeanor, Jane beams when sharing about her current profession. More than rote actor, she's plays living interpreter to visitors at museums who are encouraged to become part of the experience.
It's work that requires her to change perspective with each new encounter. Combining craft, history and public engagement, Jane is fueled by the the interesting dichotomy and intellectual challenge of her work.
"Sometimes, I am talking about the past while in the present. At other times, I behave as if the past is right now."
Smaller in influence to Florence Nightingale and seemingly a late-in-life starter, Jane Cartwright's calling is no less stimulating or satisfying. She is clearly a happy woman who has found her calling in the 21st century.
As I consider yesteryear's grand dame of nursing and the quieter, interpretive actress who brings history alive today, I smile and applaud them both.
These women found and pursued their calling, even when external reasons might have prevented them from doing so. Perhaps more importantly, both have exercised their skills, talents and passions in ways that have positively impacted the lives of others.
Whether big or small by conventional standards, we all possess unique life callings. Put to use, they invigorate our spirits and enliven others as well.
Here's wishing you the bloom of your own life calling, too!
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