ON NEW YEAR’S DAY 1994, life was looking pretty good. I was age 35 and, despite not having a college degree, was slowly climbing the corporate ladder. I’d just finished the most lucrative year of my career, and a semi-promotion promised to increase my income by 50% to 100%. My wife Kathleen was happily home-schooling our six- and 13-year-old boys, and we were thinking about buying a bigger house.
Then life happened.
On Jan. 4, my wife got the call from her doctor that her recent medical tests hadn’t turned out well. She had early stage breast cancer. That night, as we lay in bed, I blurted out something I probably shouldn’t have. But I believed it to be true. “This is going to be one of the best things that ever happened to us.” My terrified wife didn’t yell at me or punch me out. Instead, we held each other, and hoped and prayed that something good might come from our fear that she had a potentially terminal disease.
The next few weeks would change our lives. My company was supportive of me taking time off to be with Kathleen during her treatments, but that time wasn’t enough. The company was downsizing and, although I wasn’t in the demographic they were targeting, I decided to take early retirement so I could be with my family fulltime. As Kathleen completed her radiation treatments, I told her we should follow one of our dreams and use most of my severance package to buy a used RV and take a trip around the country with our boys. At first, she thought I was insane. I had no job, she was recovering from cancer and we had never driven an RV before. Her friends, however, convinced her it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. On April 9, we set off to see the country.
We were on the road for almost three months, traveling 10,000 miles and making memories that have never left us. My wife healed. I visited a seminary for the first time and began thinking about becoming a minister one day. When we returned home, we decided to move to a slower-paced life in Pacific Grove, California, where I got a new job. Kathleen found her perfect job driving the local library’s bookmobile—three months behind the wheel of a 27-foot RV was good experience—and I found a new religious tradition. I started seminary less than two years later.
Those of us who dabble in financial advice and counseling like to talk about financial security. “If a person has had the sense of the Call—the feeling that there’s an adventure for one—and if one doesn’t follow that, but remains in the society because it is safe and secure, then life dries up,” wrote Joseph Campbell.
I remember reading those words when I was in my 20s. Safety and security, or the illusion of them, have their place in life. But if we have heard the whispers or shouts of a call—of something we know in our hearts we must do—safety and security can and will never take its place. Unexpected events in life, whether they be getting cancer, changing careers or suffering financial hardship, have a way of forcing us to look in the mirror and take stock of our life.
Every spring, I think back to 1994 and all that unexpectedly happened—not only the memories of seeing much of the country for the first time, being locked up with four other people (we took our nephew, too) in a cozy RV, and reconnecting with who and what was most important in my life, but also of the urge and the deep knowing that leaving my job and being with my family was the only thing I could do. I had the faith that doing the “right” thing and taking the adventure of our lifetimes would lead to peace and joy.
Looking back, it was a risky move. It would be more than 20 years before I would make as much money as I did in 1993. My financial advisor wasn’t a fan of me leaving my job, and he certainly wasn’t a fan of me leaving the workforce and entering a seminary two years later. I remember how many people told us that they too dreamed of quitting their jobs and seeing the country through an RV windshield. But they didn’t think they could do it. Most of those people had bigger houses than us, and probably a bigger net worth, as well.
I learned that we can follow all the expert guidance in the world about money and financial planning and financial security, but sometimes that won’t be enough. I’ve seen life dry up for people, no matter whether they’re rich or poor. When we say “no” to our dreams, to the adventures of spirit and life that often unexpectedly beckon to us, a little bit dies inside. Answer the call, trust the inner wisdom that whispers to you and say “yes” to your next adventure. A different—and perhaps even more meaningful—safety and security await. I’ll be eternally grateful that two scared people listened to that whisper in January 1994. And I hope you do, too.
Don Southworth is a semi-retired minister, consultant and tax preparer living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He recently completed his Certified Financial Planner education. Don is passionate about the intersection between spirituality and money, and he encourages people to follow their callings wherever they lead. Follow Don on Twitter @calltrepreneur. His previous article was Twin Certainties.