Many of us dream of dropping out of our lives to find something we can’t completely name. “It’s so easy to make decisions based on all of the demands of the outer world: our job, family, even the people we love,” says Jude Bijou, a psychotherapist and author of Attitude Reconstruction: A Blueprint for Building a Better Life
. “Sometimes, it takes dropping out — leaving our daily lives — to get quiet and relearn how to pay attention to our intuition.”
But what would dropping out really look like?
Taking a Leap of Faith
Susan Sparks had a great job as a corporate attorney and a full life, but always felt something was missing. “In my late 30s, I was burnt out and lost,” says Sparks, now 51, who quit her job to go on a two-year journey around the globe to rediscover her spirituality. “I realized that I wanted a connection to something greater but wasn’t exactly sure what that was.”
“Growing up as a Southern Baptist, I found church to be an extremely judgmental and scary place — not somewhere God would want to be any more than I did,” says Sparks, who hadn’t been to church in 30 years. Her travels took her throughout North America, Europe, Africa and Asia to experience other religions. She spent time with a Hindu family Indonesia, an Imam in Cairo, Jains in India, and Buddhist monks in Nepal. She celebrated Purim in Jerusalem and went on a pilgrimage to the holy site at Chimayo, New Mexico. With each experience came a new understanding of what it means to search, pray, and encounter God.
“I developed a global sense of spirituality,” says Sparks, who entered theology school when she came back to her home in New York and today is a Baptist minister and comedienne. “This was so healing, at a time when I was burnt out not just on my career but on life. I needed to reconnect not just with God, but with my joy.”
Finding a Window of Opportunity
According to psychotherapist Robert Berezin, M.D., author of Psychotherapy of Character, it’s natural that the responsibilities of family and adulthood force many of us to put our passions on hold. “For some people, it’s not a problem,” Berezin explains. “They just wait until there’s a window of opportunity to reconnect with that part of themselves that’s been on a shelf but never really out of sight."
Three years ago Neil Gussman, then 57, hadn’t been in the Army since the Reagan era when he enlisted to serve in Iraq, despite the concerns of his wife and five grown children. “I had tried to enlist again after 9/11, but I was too old,” explains Gussman. “When Congress temporarily raised the enlistment age in 2007, I figured it was my chance to do something for my country. I had no idea how much it would change me.”
Guzman spent a year in a war zone, as a mechanic and then a reporter for Army publications, chronicling the heroic stories of soldiers who fix and fly helicopters. During that time, he reconnected with the feeling he’d had during his tour of duty straight out of high school—that he was part of something bigger than himself, something that really mattered.
“Helping people in another culture who are struggling, and have gone through extreme loss, had a lasting impression on me,” says Guzman, who had been talking for years with his wife about the idea of adopting a child from Haiti. He wasn’t so sure he wanted to spend his senior years being a dad again — particularly to a child from another culture. But serving in the army gave him a clear sense of how connected we all are. Neil and his wife started the process of adopting a boy from Haiti when he returned from Iraq.
Taking a Big Risk
While Guzman effectively put his passion aside for years, that’s not always possible. “For some people, what you’re really talking about is dropping into their lives,” Berezin says. “They've become extremely disconnected with their authentic self and that requires extreme change.”
That’s how it was for Rowan Parker, who suffered from bouts of anxiety and depression as a teenager. “I could maintain being bubbly and happy for a while, but it was almost manic,” he explains. “And then drop into depression and become a different person. I’d lose jobs, relationships, and even dropped out of school because of this feeling that something I couldn’t name was wrong with me."
While attending an all-female college, the root of this extreme discomfort in the world became clear to Rowan. “It wasn’t that I was in the wrong body as a woman, but how people perceived that body,” says Parker, 27, who began undergoing gender transition five years ago by changing his name and pronouns with friends and family, long before starting hormone therapy. “As a man, I don’t feel the same pressure to act, dress, and think in a certain way.”
The process of coming out as transgender has transformed everything about Rowan’s life, stabilizing his mood, improving his relationship with his parents and friends, and making it possible for him to keep a job. In fact, he loves his job as a preschool teacher and was recently married.
Dropping Out as a Couple
Many couples dream of dropping out together, maybe retiring early and giving back in a meaningful way. David and Laurie Vanderpool have shared that dream ever since they were high school sweethearts 40 years ago. Just last summer, they sold their home in Brentwood, Tennessee, along with most of their possessions and David’s successful medical practice, and bought 63 acres near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on which to set up a medical clinic, orphanage and school.
“Marriage is a series of reinventions,” says Hewett. “First, you transition from two single people to a couple, and then parents. When the children move out there’s the opportunity to transform your marriage once again. Going on an adventure and doing something meaningful together can strengthen each individual as well as the marriage.”
For the Vanderpools, dropping out of their comfortable suburban life and moving to Haiti was also a way to strengthen their faith. “This is a way of really walking the talk of Christianity,” explains Laurie, who organized a garage sale of their belongings as a fund raiser. “And I do feel a stronger connection with God, doing this work. When you get down to it, helping those who can never repay you is Christianity in it’s purest form.”
Find Daily Time to Drop Out
While dropping out of your life may seem extreme, there’s value in carving out sacred time to keep connected with what’s really important. “A lot of depression and negative emotions come from people feeling like they can’t actually have what they want,” says Bijou, who advises scheduling time daily to walk, paint, whatever brings you joy. “Validating your passion, even for short periods, can be very powerful.”
For Barbara Odanaka, who experienced severe post-partum depression, being on a skateboard for just ten minutes every afternoon changed her life. “I dropped out of my career because I wanted to have a new life as full-time mom,” says Odanaka. “But I missed having a passion to call my own.” She hadn’t been skate-boarding since she was ten, and all the freedom she had felt as a child came rushing back as she sidewalk surfed again.
Since then, Odanaka, now 52, has met dozens of other skateboarding moms in her Los Angeles neighborhood, and has created “Rolling for Reading,” a program to collect gently used books and distribute them on skateboards to kids in need. Over the past 17 years, about 500 moms have become involved in Odanaka’s annual Mighty Mama Skate-o-Rama charity even on Mother’s Day to raise money for children’s literacy.
“Rediscovering my childhood passion completely transformed my life,” she says. “I love being a mom, but skate-boarding feeds another part of me. And that I can use it to help kids is amazing.”
Jennifer Haupt is a freelance writer living in Bellevue, Washington who drops out of her life on a regular basis, sometimes alone and sometimes with her husband and two sons.
(This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health Magazine)