Thoughts, Observations, and Musings on Taking a Break from the Normal (Whatever “normal” means)
This brief dispatch is about what happened when I took a self-imposed hiatus from the hamster wheel of the five-day, forty-plus hour work week we all know as the “normal” professional life. I say “self-imposed,” but my wife was the one who suggested it; she called it a sabbatical.
But what’s a “sabbatical” anyway? Leave it to Urban Dictionary to come up with the most accurate definitions:
Sabbatical: “Leave time with pay granted to a teacher or professor after serving for six or seven years on the same faculty. Its purpose is to give an extended period of time for concentrated study.”
Okay. That’s a traditional definition. But I wasn’t a teacher or professor.
Sabbatical: “A sabbatical year is a prolonged hiatus, typically one year, in the career of an otherwise successful individual taken in order to fulfill some dream, e.g. writing a book or travelling extensively. Some universities and other institutional employers of scientists, physicians, and/or academics offer a paid sabbatical as an employee benefit.”
“Prolonged hiatus, typically lasting a year.” That sounds better. “Taken by an otherwise successful person.” Even better. “To fulfill some dream, like writing a book or travelling extensively.” Maybe. But what if an otherwise successful person just wants to take a prolonged hiatus? For no other reason than taking a prolonged hiatus? Is there anything wrong with that? And what can be gained?
Some of the above definitions fit and some do not; my “sabbatical” was not a paid one. It was not a benefit of my job. It came about sort of through happenstance. (Or did it?)
It’s necessary up front to briefly explain how I got here. Nearly three years ago, I experienced something unexpected. I was just over two years into what I thought was my dream job, but the dream wasn’t turning out to be what I thought it would be when I hired on. The reality was proving to be a letdown from the way it had been packaged and wrapped up. In the midst of wondering whether I wanted to continue with it, events beyond my meager control forced my hand (well, nothing really forced my hand; something happened that made me decide I didn’t want to be a part of the organization one day longer). I made a decisive decision to cut all ties at that moment. I left and never looked back.
The irony in everything that happened since then is I find myself internally thanking the people who had a small hand in engineering my sudden freedom, because their actions had a part in helping me do some things and experience others during the past thee years that I never would have had the chance to do had I remained mired in that situation.
Think of the crazy girlfriend or boyfriend you had that you finally broke up with. At one time you probably thought you couldn’t live without them. Maybe there was at one time a hint of bitterness in the way it ended. And now with the cleansing and purifying effects of time and hindsight, you look back and laugh with relief at having extricated yourself from the situation, and despite all that happened, you’re thankful for what they inadvertently taught you about yourself, relationships, and what you want and need out of life. However twisted that might be, you are forced in some way to thank them for whatever they did that prompted you to leave, finally freeing you.
I know. It’s strange. But it’s true.
When I made that decision to leave the “dream job,” I created an immediate uncertainty. But I simultaneously created a sudden, unexpected freedom. It opened the door for me to reactivate in my military career for a year, and it actually ended up being two years. And although I was working full time again on active-duty, I had some consistent periods of free time on my hands after work and on weekends that opened up other doors that enabled me to finally pursue some goals for which I had never had time before; I was off the electronic leash and the 24-hour a day tether that chained me to the machine, the “matrix” that was the “dream job.”
So when that military reactivation ended last September I faced a dilemma: find a new “normal” job, which, due to my resume, would mean me continuing to work somewhere away from my family, or essentially being a stay at home Dad while my youngest son finished high school. My wife convinced me to stay home and, in her words, take a “sabbatical” for my son’s last year in high school. “You’ve been working for 22 years straight since we got out of law school, you’ve served your country during war, accomplished nearly every professional goal you ever had, and you deserve a break.” I pondered this for several minutes. What was I going to do with my time if I wasn’t working every day? That’s right; my biggest fear wasn’t a lack of money, or decrease in status, or something else. It was the fear of being bored. (Just like Clint Eastwood’s Gunny Highway in “Heartbreak Ridge.”)
But I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find I haven’t been bored. When you’re a person wired a certain way, you’re going to behave according to your wiring. We all need something to do, whether it’s a job or an avocation. We find new ways to use the talents we have. And focusing these talents in new directions is a satisfying and fulfilling adventure. So in a sense, the “sabbatical” hasn’t been all that different from what I was doing before. It’s just that I’m the one who decides what I’m going to do. If you really look, you’ll have no trouble avoiding boredom. If you’re driven.
After almost ten months, things here take on a “diverse symmetry,” if those two terms aren’t too contradictory. When you’re used to grinding in the same job every week for years, you develop a sense of how you account for what you got accomplished each day; if you’re like me, you develop your own daily scoreboard. But this can be a positive and a negative thing. You get inculcated to live that way such that when you’re no longer doing that job, you must find ways to replace it.
To be clear, it’s not like I’ve been doing nothing. I don’t think my sabbatical is like most sabbaticals. I've stayed very busy. For instance, I’ve continued doing my reserve military service. I’m a part-time attorney. I maintain a steady writing career. I completed the majority of the manuscript for and published my second book during this “sabbatical.” And as any stay at home mother or father knows, maintaining a functioning household is a full-time job in and of itself.
I play some eclectic roles. At times, I’m a house-Dad, a lawyer, a student, a gardener, a landscaper, a carpenter, and a writer. Some days are planned out in advance, and other days sort of take the path they take. For instance, today, I will file a motion in an appellate case I’ve taken on appointment from the 8th federal circuit in St. Louis, I’ll work on the brief in that case, I’ll write a post for a military distance learning course I have to do for my reserve career, I’ll likely do some yard work, I’ll change some light bulbs, and I’ll probably run to the grocery store to get eggs and milk, change out our grill’s propane tank, and pick up some food for our cats. Some mundane stuff to be certain. But I’ve discovered that we can derive some measure of accomplishment even in the mundane things.
Now, I understand some of these seemingly menial tasks are carried out by men and women all over the country on a daily basis, but in my case these are not collateral tasks I do before or after work; they ARE part of my “job” now. They are the new “ normal.” But this state of things provides the proverbial variety which definitely is the spice of life. I really don’t know how good I’d be at doing one thing all of the time anymore, and were I locked into a single avocation or “ job,” I wouldn’t have the time to do the other things I love to do: read, write, run, ride my road bike, improve our home, and just generally get outdoors.
I’ve always intuitively known I yearned for something more than the grind. I personally believe time goes on infinitely, forever, but our brief period along the time continuum is finite, at least in its earthly form. But this is not something to fear; it is something to embrace and cherish to its fullest. That’s why I do a lot of the stuff I do. I don’t want to look back and think I left anything on the field; like Thoreau, I want to be able to say I did my level best to live deeply, to drive life into a corner and suck out all the marrow it has.
The ironic thing is, I don’t think I would’ve ever fully come to this realization if I had continued in the “normal.” My release, my freedom from the normal came from a combination of facts beyond my control and my own decisive volition. But none of it was expected. It certainly wasn’t something that I planned. It just happened.
And now, almost three years later, it’s hard to envision going back to what was normal before. That’s not to say that I can’t do it. We do a lot of things that we can’t envision. I could never have envisioned, for instance, going to Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in the unrelenting hills and forests of Quantico and making it through that fiery trial. I could never have envisioned running an entire marathon, but I’ve done it. I could never have envisioned getting through some of the things I’ve experienced over the last three years, but here I stand.
We’re capable of doing all kinds of things that we cannot picture ourselves doing. The difference now is going back to the so-called “normal” — the 40–60 hour a week job where presence is too often confused with achievement, where meritocracy is an unknown word, and where things run on a sort of autopilot bereft of new ideas or energy — is not an attractive proposition in light of all that has transpired over the last three years.
I like my new-found perspective, and I’m a little afraid of what going back to the “normal” might do to it. I like the son, brother, husband, father and friend I am now more than who I was in those roles before. It’s not that I’m a better one of any of those roles now; it’s just that I am different. I have changed. For the better.
Tunnel vision on certain issues used to push other things out to the margins. I don’t have tunnel vision anymore. My senses seem to be more acute now. I used to enjoy certain things that I don’t enjoy as much anymore and vice versa. I used to be interested in things before that I’m not interested in anymore and vice versa. The change that happened almost three years ago, the two-year shift to my military reactivation, and my so-called sabbatical since last September created room for all of these things to happen.
So what’s the next step? I don’t know. Some days I think I’m ready to go back to full-time “normal,” because that’s what I have known for so long. And then other days I wish I could just keep cobbling together a diverse group of things in order to make it all work. But one thing is for certain: time will reveal the answer. It always does.