It’s funny what will put you over the edge to make you bite the bullet on a decision you know you’ve been needing to make for quite some time.
Mine was a Hollywood movie star’s memoir. Prone to reading a lot of business books and fiction, memoirs have become more and more of an interest for me in the last year or so, but not the pop culture icon type.
However, I’d heard a snippet of an interview with Matthew McConaughey on Sunday Today with Willie Giest on his bestselling memoir Greenlights and was intrigued. While in the airport in Dallas looking for the next thing to read, I saw it and picked it up. While in Texas, why not read about a hot Texas boy’s life, I thought.
My husband and I were in Texas for the wedding of a dear family friend that was supposed to happen a year prior but was delayed due to COVID. I was about to finish my latest summer fiction and knew I needed something else to peruse sitting poolside at the swanky hotel we had booked on points. I thought McConaughey’s reflection on his life so far would be another easy read just like the chick flick summer fiction I had finished reading and just like the movies I know him most for.
I was wrong. It was a deeply reflective read. A “Greenlight” McConaughey would say. One I needed.
The day before picking up the book, I was sitting on our back porch for a quarterly planning meeting with my team. The vibe of the porch sets itself for a type of casualness that makes things feel not quite like work, but the setting was doing no such thing for all of us. With computers in front of us and phones at our sides, we were all distracted. One team member was concerned about this email, another concerned about this text message. I tried to talk about a topic while simultaneously trying to figure out why the heck lunch hadn’t been delivered yet through the Panera Bread app on my phone.
Trying to lay the groundwork for our plans for the next quarter, we were all lost in the distractions of right now.
The constant “distractions” or stresses each of us had been faced with over the last year or so- all of a different variety- was seeming to take a toll in a similar fashion. My toll seemed to explode through the year of COVID. A year of constantly navigating the stress of the unknown which included never knowing if my kids were going to be home for “school” and therefore rendering it necessary for me to change all my work plans. A year of trying to salvage one business before it even really began. Feeling like I was never going to be able to make a plan and stick with it ever again was always at the forefront. Not being able to plan is not how I’m wired.
Add to this a house fire that left us dislocated for a while and unexpected stress on some of the people I love the most and of which I could do nothing about, I felt like I was another person entirely. The organized, type A, on top of things wife, mom, and business owner felt like I had all but vanished.
Maybe this had been coming on for more than just the time period of a global pandemic. In looking back over pictures posted for our Horizon Point ten-year anniversary, I realized I was pregnant in more than half of them. During my decade of growing a business, I had been pregnant or nursing most of the time.
So you might imagine that my toll was resulting in extreme fatigue. Like, can’t shake it no matter how much you sleep fatigue. This all led me to be frustrated with everyone and everything, especially myself. My husband had borne the brunt of this, although I would imagine some of the challenges of this toll brought to the forefront some important truths about the imbalance of expectations between men and women and the extra load I still seemed to carry at home and with the kids even though we both have demanding careers. He is more involved and supportive than most men, but when I joked about having a COVID hangover, he looked at me like I was crazy. The inconsistencies of juggling work and kids during a pandemic hadn’t been his burden to bear. Nor had been growing human beings and nursing them. This is something I’m glad my husband and I are actively discussing and trying to address now.
Other tolls for the team resulted in two team members spending time in the emergency room in the spring with chest pains and other related issues. Anxiety will tell the body something is wrong, and if it has to, it will get your attention by making you feel like you are having a heart attack.
I had been worried about everyone’s health including mine and feeling some guilt about how I had maybe contributed to it all.
So in the midst of our distraction state, I stopped and broached a subject with my team that I had put on the agenda but we weren’t to yet. Now was the time to call this to everyone’s attention. “I want us to consider all taking sabbaticals over the next few months,” I said.
I think that got their attention. All looked up from their phones and computers.
I asked some questions, they asked some, there was some reluctance, some sparks of, wait, I think she is really serious. Is she? She’s going to pay us not to work?
There was a discussion about what a sabbatical really is. One team member suggested what would be most helpful she thought would be the opportunity to take a long weekend once a month. I told her to block off her calendar for this if that is what she felt like would help. She did. I also told her to figure out when she wanted and needed the time for more of an extended break.
A week later she told me she needed that extended break sooner rather than later, and blocked off her calendar.
One team member said she was good right now. Her workload easing somewhat from the first quarter where she was almost drowning. “I don’t need it right now, but someone else may,” she said.
I asked her to consider when she might need it, prompting some things that I knew might be coming up for her. She emailed me the dates in early 2022 when she plans to take a little over a month off.
Another looked at me and I said, “I want you to pick a time period of four to six weeks to take off. And I want you to do it at a time where you can actually have some downtime, where you aren’t mired into pouring into all your kids’ activities too.”
She said she’d take the month of November.
“Block your calendar,” I said.
I am so blessed to have a fabulous team at my side. We are all givers to the core, and I think that is what brings us a lot of competitive advantage in our business. But, as the book Burnout describes, we all have “Human Giver Syndrome”.
It states, “Human givers are expected to offer their time, attention, affection, and bodies willingly, placidly, to the other class of people ‘the human beings’. The implication in these terms is that the human beings have a moral obligation to be or express their humanity, while human givers have a moral obligation to give their humanity to the human beings.” The paragraph goes on to state, “Guess which one the women are.”
It’s time for all of us to get our humanity back.
I looked at the calendar before the meeting and felt as though taking mid-August through the first week in October would be the best time for me to take off. One because there wasn’t much I’d committed to yet other than a speaking engagement in Florida, and two because I could flank my time with a fifteen-year anniversary trip with my husband and end it with a fall break trip with my family.
So it comes time for me to express my need for a sabbatical, and I’m hesitant to say when I want to take off. My hesitance comes from two places. First, because as one of our team members says every year, “Just wait until September” with the knowledge that September is always our busiest month. Can I take off during what we have seen to be over the past ten years the busiest month on the calendar for our business? And two, if I take this time period off, I’m going first. And “leaders eat last.”
Nonetheless, I share the time period I want with my team and lunch arrives. The team member that has worked with me the longest accompanies me to the door to get the food.
“I don’t think I can take that time period off,” I say. “It would mean me going first…”
She seems to know exactly what I mean by this.
“I think this would mean you are setting the example. You don’t know how much an answer to a prayer you offering this to us is for me. And you need it too.”
The first time I heard about sabbatical was my freshman year in college. Assigned to write about really anything I wanted in a freshman honors seminar, I somehow chose the topic of the intersection of religion and politics in Alabama. This is a topic that was interesting and complex almost twenty years ago and has gotten even more so in recent years.
In pouring through the literature and research on the topic, I came across a thesis called “The Least of These” by a law professor at The University of Alabama. Whether she wrote this information or took the time to talk about the publication across the state and country while on sabbatical, I can’t recall, but what I remember is that she was able to produce such a work and promote it because she took time away from her regular work duties.
Her piece was thought-provoking and thorough and one with which I aligned a lot of my thinking with. It’s taken me almost twenty years to realize that sabbatical, commonly taken in university settings as a “period of paid leave for study or travel” is also “of or appropriate to the sabbath.”
A period of rest. A period of restoration. Of which comes, in this professor’s case and what I hope to in mine, a period of time for deep thinking and work of which comes clarity and meaningful output. Purpose-driven work that only undistracted time can produce.
McConaughey calls this a “walkabout” in his memoir. Describing a period in his life following the notoriety his role in A Time To Kill brought about, he evokes his own walkabout in his life. Page 147 of his book is a poem titled “why we all need a walkabout”:
We need to put ourselves in places of decreased sensory input so we can hear the background signals of our psychological processes….
In this solitude, we then begin to think in pictures, and actualize what we see….
Whatever the verdict, we grow…
We tend to ourselves and get in good graces once again.
Then we return to civilization, able to better tend to our tendencies.
Why? Because we took a walkabout.
I get it. I like it.
While in Dallas, I’ve gotten to have a mini walkabout. I’ve spent time alone with my husband eating and drinking and socializing our way through Dallas on a wedding weekend. I’ve sat by a pool where someone delivered me freshwater before my glass was ever empty and a cocktail when I was ready. I read without interruption. All things I’ve needed. Or maybe all this extravagance is a want. First-world problems are what I’ve almost always had the fortune to have.
But on Sunday afternoon, lounging by the pool with my husband and finishing McConaughey’s memoir, I realize that I’ve just begun to have enough time in my mini walkabout to think, to think deeply. And it’s over. Tomorrow I’ll go back to all the “sensory input” and to-dos. To a beautiful life of course, with so much to be thankful for, but one in which I’m growing increasingly unable to see because I’m exhausted.
I sit with my feet in the pool by my husband in silence. We’ve gotten to the point in our trip where we’ve talked a lot to each other, caught up on a lot of things and thoughts, laughed a lot, and are now content to sit together silently. It’s peaceful. It’s reflective.
I look up at the clouds. There are white fluffy clouds moving one direction and above them, gray, wispy clouds moving the other.
“Look,” I say to my husband, “there are two kinds of clouds, moving in different directions. I’ve never seen that before.”
And I silently think that the gray ones are higher in the sky. And I think I’d rather be that maybe moving in a different direction than the way I’ve been conditioned to move, but higher nonetheless.
With that, I do something I don’t do much of if at all as I’ve aged- as life has gotten infinitely more complex and stressful but also infinitely more joyful all at once- I jump into the pool.
As I write this, I’m keenly aware of all the people in this world who don’t know nor may ever have the freedom to take a walkabout. For the single mom who can’t break or pause because if she does, mouths won’t be fed and roofs won’t stay overheads. To the employee who would be fired if they ever even attempted to suggest they needed more than one week at a time for a vacation. Who would never allow themselves to take more than a few days at a time (and usually still work while “off”) because this is what their heads, their employer, and the world tells them they have to do to be “valuable.”
But all the research is there about how much people need rest and reprieve in order to be productive, in order to thrive, and in order to be creative. To produce their best work. To be human. I’ve been shocked by the number of conversations I’ve had just this week about people’s physical health crumbling because of the mental health issues they are dealing with by being overworked to the point of exhaustion. Some of this is self-imposed, some of this is cultural and systematic, some of it is unique to the pandemic world we are living in, and some of it is due to technology. But none of it is good. (If you’d like to delve into the research on how we got to this state and what it is doing to us, two good books to read are Do Nothing and Burnout.)
But as the professor who took a sabbatical to produce deep work impacted the conversation about tax policy in Alabama from a Christian perspective, so too might my time to rest and restore and to think deeply lead to more purposeful output that can impact these challenges I’m describing now. Maybe it is a catalyst for impacting individual situations (like the single mom) and workplace mindsets that keep us all desperately needing a break.
Later in Greenlights, McConaughey describes another period in his life where he intentionally called a red light in order to wait for the best greenlight. Realizing that the rom-coms he had become famous for served a purpose and a place- and created a whole heck of a lot of wealth for him- he was able to realize he wanted something different for himself. A role with more purpose and meaning. So he waited it out. For almost two years.
That waiting led him to win an Oscar.
And maybe, more importantly, it allowed him an opportunity to watch his young kids grow and be a dad without distraction.
I think one of the fondest memories my kids have of me is running full force in just shorts and a sports bra into the ocean to them. While on vacation after an extremely hot run, the only thing that seemed natural for me to do was to run full force into the ocean with half my running clothes still on. Not prone to impulsivity and to having just a sports bra on without a top, my kids were shocked I think. But after the jolt of the shock, they giggled and giggled. We played and played. And I cooled off. They still talk about this and it happened almost three years ago.
I want my kids to see me more uninhibited, more fun, more free, less distracted, less frazzled. I need to reset and maybe you do too.
Although I don’t have the runway of wealth that McConaughey did to support extended walkabouts in the form of years, the theory of it and the need for it is not lost on me. I can take a month or two with it fulfilling the same intent. I do have a fabulous team at work that will support things in my absence and I will support them in theirs as they each take their turn.
By taking a walkabout, I hope I’m giving others a green light to do the same, of which comes the clarity to pursue things of true meaning and value. Here’s to the possibility of diving in, either literally or metaphorically or both, into the beauty of the one life we each have to live and modeling for our kids and others that they have permission to do the same.
If you would like to dive further into reflection on this topic, here are some readings (some of which are referenced in the post) that I’ve found to be valuable: