What Are You Willing to Give Up?

Last year, I quit my job.

It was a good job. Decent pay, a fancy title, convenient location, the opportunity for travel, . . . all the perks I’d dreamed about . . . five years ago.

So why quit?

Well, it’s complicated. But if I had to boil it down to its most distillate form, the answer would lie in Joseph Campbell’s famous quote (and I paraphrase):

“We must be willing to give up the life we had planned, in order to live the life that is waiting for us.”

Now this sounds pat, I realize, but after many, many years of doing the right thing, being the good girl, I’d come to the point where I didn’t even know what “life” I wanted. I was on autopilot.

I had read all the books: How to Be a Good Wife, How to Raise Happy and Healthy Children, How to Advance in Your Career, How to Save for Retirement . . . okay, that one got lost . . . I left it at an airport . . . I think . . . but anyway, I was doing all the right things, being a good soldier. And for the most part, this was the life I wanted, this was the life I created–carefully and deliberately.

So what changed?

Well, everything.

My children are now grown. The home that I had tended so lovingly is now too big (and the colors are all wrong!). My husband and I have settled into companionable peace. The work that had so galvanized me ten years ago is now mostly meh! It’s like the life I was living no longer fits the person I am today (think late Elvis in a blingy jumpsuit). Something had to give.

So I jumped.

Now anyone who knows me will tell you that I am supremely risk-averse, so I use the word “jump” loosely here. It was more like a careful descent . . . down a set of wide, shallow steps . . . with handrails on both sides. Still, it was time to take a risk, to make a change.

Around this time, I came across an interview on The Creative Penn Podcast with speculative fiction author and blogger, Kevin Tumlinson, in which he talked about how he and his wife sold their home, moved into an RV, and completely downsized their world in order to pursue a life of travel and writing. He described how they first transitioned from a four-bedroom house to a one-bedroom apartment (and all the purging that went along with that), and then how they transitioned a few years later from the apartment to an RV.

Now I have no intention of doing any such nonsense–I like the comforts of my home too much (outdated paint-job notwithstanding)–but there was a nugget in there that I found quite inspiring. In talking about how he and his wife came to the decision to downsize, he said they had to ask the question

What are we willing to give up, in order to have the life we want?

Wow.

That’s it, isn’t it? It’s not that we don’t want to reach out for a new and better life; it’s that we don’t want to give up what we already have, what we have (in many cases) worked so hard to attain.

Wow.

This got me thinking, what am I willing to give up in order to craft the life I want now? Money? Prestige? Security? Familiarity? Expertise?

Oh dear God, no!

I felt like my twelve-year-old self–not really sure that I would ever play with my dolly again, but not quite ready to give her up to Goodwill either.

Also, I was scared.

Money

Prestige

Security

Familiarity

Expertise

These were the holy grail of adulthood–the hallmarks of having arrived. How was I going to risk so much for so little . . . or at least for the unknown?

Then I remembered that I had risked it all before. Thrice.

First as a twenty-year-old when I left my home and family to pursue a career as a flight attendant in a foreign country. There I was, a newly-minted college graduate, chucking it all in for a low-paying job with no prestige whatsoever, in an unfamiliar culture where I knew no one. No safety. No security. No familiarity. Pretty risky I would say.

The next time was a few years later when I immigrated to this country as a young wife with no papers and no opportunities for work. Again, I found myself in unfamiliar surroundings, financially dependent on my husband, and with few prospects for advancement. I was a housewife, for crying out loud! No money. No prestige. No familiarity–with either the country or the role.

And finally, I risked it all in becoming a mother. Now don’t get me wrong, I desperately wanted to be a mother, but I was also patently ill-suited to be one–impatient, rigid, and resentful of the time and effort it cost me. I was a stay-at-home mum who clothed her children in (toxic, commercial) diapers, fed them (non-organic, bottled) baby food, and gave them cheap (lead-filled) toys to play with. So, no money. No prestige. And definitely no expertise!

Remembering these instances offered little comfort, but it did give me the confidence to (at least momentarily) know that I had some experience with the unknown and the unfamiliar, and that perhaps these soft skills (experiences) could transfer to a new situation.

The first thing I had to do was get right with the money. This took some math. Which I am not good at. So basically I shelved complicated calculations and just told myself, hey, 15 years ago we lived on half of what we make now–and that’s with both children at home and a much higher mortgage rate. I figured if I kept my second job (yes, second job . . . remember shallow steps? Handrails? . . . not bloody Thelma and Louise!), and even factoring in inflation, we could make it work. Calculations over.

Then I had to get over the prestige factor. I had a pretty fancy title at the old job and a staff and an expense account–not bad for an academic–and here I was contemplating forsaking all of that for a lowly teaching gig. It took a moment, I will admit, but when I really thought about it, I was weary of all the hand-holding and nose-wiping that comes with middle management and even the travel was beginning to wear thin. Still, it took some spiritual fortitude (and strong drink!) to fend off the inevitable you’re-making-a-terrible-mistake conversations I had with other rising stars in the organization.

And finally I had to come to terms with insecurity. I did not know what was coming next, or if there was anything coming at all, and that scared me witless. Marriage, mortgage, tenure, swaha! This has been my mantra my entire life, so to contemplate the great unknown, the vast expanse of time ahead of me, was intimidating, to say the least. Still I soldiered on. I played the what’s-the-worst-that-could-happen-to-me game everyday, and everyday the game told me that the worst that could happen was that I’d need to get another job. Big deal. I’m not afraid of a little hard work.

So here’s what we have: Sometimes we have to give something up, maybe even many things up, in order to create the life we want.

What do I want?

Peace. Space. Air. Words. Laughter. Love. Adventure. Donuts . . . okay, okay, not donuts. I forsake donuts!

I want a life where hard work is interspersed with wide meadows of rest. I want time to travel, time to learn a language (or four). I want to wake up without dread. I want to surround myself with interesting people. I want to let my curiosity take me where it will. I want to be okay with blank pages and empty calendars. I want to be able to visit my children–at will and often. I want to walk until I think, enough.

How about you? What is the life you long to create, and what are you willing to give up to get it?

Let me know in the comments below.

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