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.”
Like Sparks, 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.”
“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 understand of what it meant 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 a 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.”
Why drop out?
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 age 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 became 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.
When dropping out isn’t a choice
Kenan Malkic had three limbs blown off by a landmine during the Bosnian War in 1994, when he was just 11 years old. Suddenly, he was no longer the star of his neighborhood soccer team, but the kid who everyone stared at with pity when his mother rolled his wheelchair down the street. Instead of riding bikes with friends after school, he mostly hid in his room so nobody would see the scars covering his face.
“I didn’t want people helping me,” says Kenan, who learned to feed and dress himself with the nubs that ended at his elbows, and could even hold a pencil and ride a bike within a few years after the accident thanks to two years of physical therapy in Canada. “But in my small town, I would always be the crippled boy. I couldn’t change the way other people saw me.”
According to Alexandra Hewett, a psychotherapist in Baltimore, being diagnosed with a diseased or suddenly becoming disabled like Kenan can be devastating but it can also be a chance for reinvention. “It’s like the death of a part of yourself and requires going through the grieving steps of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then finally acceptance,” she explains. “But after acceptance, you have the opportunity to discover new things about yourself. Of course, it’s not a choice anyone would make but it can be a gift.”
When Kenan was fourteen, he left his family and home — everything he knew — to come to Staten Island and get fitted for modern, well-fitting prosthetic limbs he couldn’t get in Bosnia. “New York was like a fairytale land, something I’d only seen on TV,” recalls Kenan, who had learned English from watching “Dallas” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movies. “I was nervous about leaving everything I knew, but it was also an opportunity to be seen differently. To see my self differently.”
The anonymity of New York city suited Kenan. He could walk down the street without anyone knowing he was wearing three prosthetic limbs, and hardly anyone noticing the faded scars on his face. Now, Kenan works as a computer technician at a financial institution and still lives in Staten Island with his fiancé. He still helps out the charity that brought him here, Global Medical Relief, and is a role model for other children injured in war and disasters.
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.”
Journalist Jennifer Haupt dropped out of her life for a month to interview genocide survivors in Rwanda. Read about this in her e-book “Will You Be My Mother?” which includes three personal essays about her quest to ask and answer this question.