A month after I turned 50, I quit my job. I said goodbye to a decent salary (as far as the non-profit sector goes) with a future untold. The poet Mary Oliver reminds us that “something brighter than money moves through our blood,” and I had sensed its pull.
I was almost nine years into my monogamous relationship with my job, and I’d been in the game long enough to know that I run on something akin to a seven to nine year itch in my professional life. And each time the push to renew, to find new shores, is different.
This time it was a desire to move overseas and be closer to my parents. The thought of uprooting myself, admittedly, was a scary one. And it was not something I could contemplate amidst the craziness of work life. I needed time to be, to breathe, to figure it out. And I was batting a half century. I had worked hard and saved like a good Indian boy is taught to, so I decided it was time to go against the grain, take a break — a sabbatical if you will — stretch my toes out and enjoy life a little more.
It was time to know what I wanted the rest of my working years to feel like. What was to be the texture of my remaining time? What was, to paraphrase Oliver, to be my “place in the family of things”?
I’d met with the retirement planner, looked at my savings, and yet walking away from a paycheck was like walking off a cliff and not knowing how far you would fall before you hit dirt. So I agonized a bit, fiddling with departure dates, and then inventing reasons to extend them.
Then one night I came across a music video of One by Mary J Blige and U2. There was so much energy in that song. I watched the video of it at least five times mesmerized by Blige and Bono and how they unleash everything they have on stage. Everything. I danced around the room, as if Blige and Bono were belting the song out just for me. It was as if a flame within had been ignited. And I said to myself, “this is it”. The next day, I gave my notice, a couple of months.
As I reflected a few days later on the bold step I had finally taken and trying to make sense of it, two lines from the song kept playing over in my head:
“Love is a temple, love is a higher law.”
But this is work we’re talking about, so what’s love got to do with it? The words of Kahlil Gibran’s Prophet gently floated into my mind: “work is love made visible.”
It dawned on me that if you no longer enjoy your work, if your heart is no longer fully in it, then there is no love — or not enough. And where there is no love there is a higher law you are not giving yourself unto. For something you will spend the best hours of your days and decades doing, you’d better be in it one hundred percent.
And I realized that for a while now, I had not been operating fully at the level of this higher law. Instead, I had been operating by a set of man-made laws. What were some of these? That we should be grateful to have jobs. That even if things get difficult we should stick with it. That we shouldn’t quit our jobs even if they’re not as much fun anymore. That after work is when we get to do what really want. That we shouldn’t leave our jobs unless we have the next one lined up. That, what-you’re-quitting-at-fifty-?- no -one-will-hire-you line. And so on. All these invented laws by those who have never taken a leap.
Mind you, it wasn’t as if I didn’t like my work or colleagues. There were good days and bad days and most of the best days of my working life thus far. Saying goodbye to my friend and colleagues was tough and I remin amazed at their dedication to improving the lives of the poor.
But the best time to leave a party is at its peak when you’re still having fun.
Flush with the currency of freedom, I am now on a journey to discover what the work is that remains for me to do. Yes, that work, the one-hearted, one-love, fully in it, type of work that we’ve all experienced or had glimpses of. And to bring the same completeness, the hundred percent that both Blige and Bono bring on stage because that is what creates magic. And because we only have one life to do it in.
Weeks later, as I lined up to board a ferry from Boston to Provincetown to enjoy the Labor Day weekend, one of the ship’s crew men was yelling out information on the ferry schedule. Each time someone in line asked a question, he would answer good-naturedly. And then, this man, this big man with the ruddy complexion of men who work on the water, his boots anchored to the tarmac, shouted out something that signaled a nod of approval from the universe. Yes, he said, without any trace of regret in his voice, they would be sailing on Labor day to get people back and forth from the cape, because “work is love made visible.”
One Love. One Life.