I’m a huge fan of the Google Doodles. I’ve learned some fairly interesting bits of trivia from those imaginative drawings and I get quite excited whenever I see one. A few days ago the featured story was about a woman named Phoebe Snetsinger. Like me, it is unlikely that most people would have known anything about this woman unless they were avid birdwatchers. It seems that Ms. Snetsinger was known as a “big lister” in the birding crowd because she had managed to sight more than 8400 different species of birds out of the ten thousand that are said to exist. Only a handful of individuals even come close to her feat. I wanted to learn more about this woman because my son-in-law and his father love to watch for birds wherever they travel and a teaching colleague of mine enjoys that hobby as well. What I learned about Phoebe was fascinating.
Phoebe Snetsinger seemingly led the good life. Her father had made a fortune as a brilliant advertising executive and she married a man who as a researcher at Purina also earned a hefty salary. She herself had always wanted to be a scientist but instead she settled into the routine of a 1950s suburban housewife. It wasn’t long before she was feeling quite bored but these were the days when women were expected to embrace traditional roles and for a time she did her duties. All of that changed when something extraordinary happened. Phoebe was diagnosed with melanoma and told that she likely had less than a year to live. Suddenly she knew exactly how she wanted to spend her last days on earth and she embarked on an adventurous plan to see as many birds as possible before she died.
Phoebe threw herself into birding with abandon, traveling all over the world in a quest to find even the most exotic species. She didn’t die from melanoma but she endangered herself over and over again while following her dream. She once broke her wrist and her knee while pursuing the rarest birds on earth. She even endured the horror of being raped by five men in New Guinea. Nothing seemed to stop her, not even the melanoma that eventually returned. On one occasion she visited Rwanda just before the warring genocide began and joked with friends that she had just barely made it out alive.
Her personality and determination were bigger than life. She shattered the conventions so often placed on women, shockingly missing both her mother’s funeral and her daughter’s wedding, no doubt causing tongues to wag. She was on a mission and the only thing able to deter her was ultimately her death, not from cancer, but from a car crash in Madagascar. Had she lived she would have been 85 years old this month.
Most people have neither the time, money nor inclination to follow such a fanatical path as Pheobe Snetsinger did but my guess is that those who share her love of birds might dream of being able to replicate her accomplishments. My son-in-law has a family and multiple responsibilities but I suspect that given the resources to do so he would hit the road tomorrow. My teacher friend is now retired and she and her husband spend most of their time seeking birds and photographing them. I for one look forward to viewing her lovely photos each day and imagine how much fun she is having now that she is no longer ruled by a clock everyday. She is just adventurous enough that she too might love having the means to expand her bird watching territory into more exotic places.
Passion is a grand motivator but sometimes we quell those stirrings inside our minds so that we might “do the right thing.” Literature is replete with stories of humans who embarked on grand adventures and those who slowly died performing the duties that were expected of them. It is the rare person who is able to unloose the chains that keep them ordinary and there is usually a high price to pay for doing so. Society tends to judge those who take extraordinary risks with a negative slant, particularly when they are women. Such it was for Phoebe Snetsinger who was generally only known in a world that most interested her, but within that circle she became a rockstar. Phoebe had the good luck of being wealthy. Having money to pursue one’s interests is always a plus. It’s difficult to travel the world and thumb one’s nose at the naysayers on a modest income. Being rich has always has its perks but it is not the only route to success and even the wealthy are not without their problems.
Phoebe Snetsinger was remarkable for her willingness to endure hardships and make real sacrifices while seeking some of the rarest birds in the world. Much like the most notable individuals of history she understood that greatness does not come from doing something halfway. Thomas Edison might never have invented the light bulb had he worked on his invention only in his spare time. Galileo was willing to give his very freedom in defense of his scientific theories. The very best among us whether they be scientists, athletes, writers, educators, business persons, mathematicians, doctors or artists are devoted to their craft. It is passion that propels them forward and keeps them focused even in difficult times.
I have counseled many students who were confused over how to plan their futures. Again and again I have urged them to think about what they really love to do and then craft a life around following their dreams. The happiest people that I have ever met are the ones who ultimately do what their hearts tell them to do. My brother who announced at the age of three that he wanted to be a mathematician is still joyfully doing his advanced calculations to navigate the International Space Station. Another brother who wanted to be a firefighter followed his instincts over the protests of adults who thought they knew better and he has had a glorious career. I can tell countless stories of individuals who found profound happiness simply by living out their passions. At the same time I know others who never quite found contentment because they allowed themselves to be misdirected from what they saw as their real places in life.
We should all be inspired by the story of Phoebe Snetsinger. She was a living example of someone who was a true warrior. She refused to allow a deadly diagnosis to keep her down. She ignored the customs of her time and instead followed her own instincts. She focused her time on what was important to her. She ultimately became one of the biggest of the birding big listers proving that it is never too late to fulfill the dreams that call to us. Each of us wants to leave a mark on the world. We want to be significant even if only in a small way. Listen to the voices that are telling you how to become the best version of yourself. Take the first steps and then don’t look back. Bring passion to your endeavors every day and never be afraid. Nobody knows your purpose better than you do. Follow your heart and it will surely lead you to the places that you were meant to be.