Finding Purpose by Stepping Away: My Sabbatical Experience by guest blogger S.E. Fleenor

S.E. FLEENOR writes novels and non-fiction essays centering on feminism, pop culture, and social justice. Fleenor is also a non-profit consultant and copyeditor. sefleenor.com

I haven’t really written much about the sabbatical I took in 2016, which extended from the beginning of May through the beginning of January. Well, kind of. You see, I’m somewhat of a workaholic, and I had big plans for my sabbatical: finish my novel (didn’t happen), learn how to copywrite (not so much), find new clients (success!), work out everyday (ehhhhh), find a new, more manageable job (nailed it!), and read a lot (does 87 graphic novels count?). Do you see the issue here? I didn’t have any goals related to relaxing, slowing down, or prioritizing.

Now, for some people my shortcomings might have made their sabbatical experience a failure. Some might say, “Damn it, Fleenor, you didn’t even meet half your goals. D-” But for me, a person more invested in the process than the outcome, my sabbatical was a smashing success. And I really mean smashing in all valences of the term: awesome (Brits have great slang), intense, and completely breaking my expectations up into little bits.

If my sabbatical wasn’t about kicking ass and taking names, then what was it about? Well, I’ll tell you.

Relaxation

Growing up working class and being the first in my family to go to college, get a stable job, and avoid the woes of addiction and incarceration, I have a certain set of baggage. (Don’t we all?) Well, some of my baggage is in the idea that if I work hard enough, I will be loved, I will be worthy, I will be enough. Intellectually, I know that’s a boatload of garbage. Everyone deserves love, everyone is worthy, everyone is enough. (Okay, maybe not certain demagogue-wannabe-dictators, but hey maybe if Daddy had mustered an “I love you” our lives would all be different.)

Along with my baggage, comes the fact that relaxation does not come easily to me. In fact, I find relaxing kind of annoying. I consistently think, shouldn’t I be doing something right now? As a writer, consultant, and copyeditor, the truth is I can always be doing something: rewriting a tricky scene, pitching an article, creating handouts for a client, editing another piece of writing, reading and reading and reading.

Prior to my sabbatical, I used these to-do lists (and oh my word, do I have a lot of to-do lists) to justify continually revving, keeping myself ready for whatever was to come down the pipeline next.

If you’re a health professional (mental or otherwise), you probably know what happened when I took my sabbatical: I crashed. When I say crash, I mean, I could barely get out of bed, off the couch, or out of my house. The first month of my sabbatical was spent sleeping, watching tv, reading (a little), and recuperating from the years of non-stop work I had subjected myself to.

The worst part was that I didn’t realize that this is just what I needed, that as an introvert I needed to shut down and be alone. (If you know me, you’re probably all gasp “An introvert? Nary would I have known!” But you know, that’s part of the problem. This article explains my weird balance of introvert nicely. ) For a while, I hated myself for not getting anything done, for not pushing myself to work on my book, which was the whole damn point of the sabbatical.

What I came to find, though, was it was only in the stripping away of what I thought I should be doing, through a full involuntary bodily shut down, that I figured out what I wanted to be doing and what my passion truly is, but before I got to purpose, I still had a ways to go.

Abundance

As a good semi-Daoist who meditates and does yoga, I’d heard a lot about operating from a place of abundance. As a social justice advocate and working-class queer woman, I couldn’t help but think abundance sounded a lot like prosperity theology, which is a load of…

Anyway, what I found during my sabbatical is that abundance does not necessarily have to imply financial abundance. During my sabbatical, my partner and I were very tight on finances. I had saved up a lot of money from my old job, but a mortgage, a car payment, groceries, utilities, and pet costs add up quickly. What abundance has come to mean to me is that I have exactly one life to live and only so much time and energy with which to live it.

Rather than spending my time worrying only about what I have to do to get by, build a life, and be good at my job, I started reorienting my time and energy to what I actually love and care about. By focusing on what I really want, what brings me joy, and how I want to be in the world, I found that I had more than I knew available to me.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no delusions about the fact that getting to decide where my energy and time go is a privilege, which is part of the reason I put so much energy into social justice and equality work. However, when I do only what I “should” I find myself resentful, frustrated, and over-committed. Since my sabbatical, I’ve really done my best to protect my abundance, protect my time and energy, and give myself fully only when there is a fullness to give. When I found I had enough of me to live the life I wanted, I started exploring what it is that I wanted.

Play

For no other reason than I hadn’t really read any, I designated 2016 as the year I was going to read as many graphic novels/comic books as I could. I took three or four round-up articles and cross-referenced them, then any time someone told me about a book I had to read, I added it to my list. In the end, this resulted in me reading 87 graphic novels and taking a class on Smithsonian’s online platform called “The Rise of Superheroes.”

I thought comic books and graphic novels would be a one-time love affair, a year spent reading and consuming the genre and then onto the next thing. My reading list for 2017 does have a different theme (reading that fights hate and ignorance), but I have found myself returning to comic books time and again as a space for imagination, decompression, and play. Nowadays, I have a subscription to Marvel Unlimited and try to read a comic book or two every day, just for me, for no particular reason at all. Unforeseen outcomes have included: feeling more relaxed, making time for other types of reading, and goofing around more. I’m a playful person, but never before have I prioritized play, and if you take nothing else from this post, let me give you the permission to play. Find something you love, something useless or without boundaries/expectations, and take time for it as much as possible, every day if you can. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find when you take a few minutes for play (instead of say, checking Facebook), that time rewards you tenfold with energy, patience, and joy.

Purpose

I didn’t know it, but only through my sabbatical journey from relaxation through abundance and play, could I find purpose. I knew who I was prior to my sabbatical, but I am also a believer that we are constantly changing, constantly in a state of becoming. For me, only after I’d been undone and allowed to wander aimlessly through my existence, could I feel myself become more of…me. It didn’t happen all at once. I didn’t wake up on August 6th and decide I’d figured it out (I still haven’t completely figured it out), but I have narrowed in on my purpose here on this planet.

I’m only here to do a few things: write, fight for social justice, rescue dogs, love deeply, and live as simply as I can. Some of these things seem and can be incongruent with one another, but that’s why it’s my life and that’s what makes it beautiful. As I tack and jibe, finding the best way to situate my sails for my journey, I’ve found myself exploring futures I’d never known I was interested in and I know that means I’ll have to continue working to find harmony and balance. As new opportunities come into my life, by necessity old ones will have to fade away, but I am willing to see what unfolds.

Now what?

In January, I started my new job as an Executive Director of a non-profit. My role is part-time due to the small nature of our organization, but as with any non-profit job, there is plenty of work to fill well over a full-time schedule. When I started my new job, I didn’t drop any other commitments, so I’m definitely busy. What has changed from before my sabbatical, though, is what I am busy with. My journey to defining my purpose has been invaluable in helping me say no with a loving smile, choose additional commitments with care, and take time off just for me (to read comic books and play with my dogs, obviously).

My sabbatical wasn’t a panacea and I still have to remind myself daily of my right to choose the life I want. There is so much need in the world, so many incredible opportunities to pursue, so many things I “should” do. When I feel the crushing need and expectations of the world pressing down on me, I remind myself that it doesn’t matter what others think of my life. All that matters is what I choose to do with the time I have here.

 


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