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The memory of that day is burned into my mind forever.
In what seems like a lifetime ago, I had a successful career in finance, a marriage, and enough material possessions to keep me sufficiently distracted.
But on that day, for no apparent reason, my hardened outer shell cracked open ever-so-slightly to give me a glimpse into what was to come.
As twilight filtered through barely open blinds, I sat frozen, staring off at nothing in particular. With only the quiet glare of my computer screen for company, I allowed myself to feel my thoughts for an instant.
Despite my outward success, I felt the emptiness I’d run from for so long. Surely, it couldn’t be. I led an enviable life, and my achievements should have rid myself of these feelings for good. But on that day, I realized they had not done that at all—and for a moment, I felt the intense darkness of despair.
And a thought flashed through me that both scared me and shook me to my core, forcing me out of my chair and back into my unfeeling world of distractions.
“If I can’t be happy with everything I’ve got, perhaps I don’t deserve to keep this life.”
And then over the next several years, with a combination of self-sabotage and poor fortune, I proceeded to lose everything.
As I sat in my lawyer’s office, the pen shook in my hand. The sale of my home was about to close. Selling a home is a time of joy for many of us. It can mean buying a larger home for a growing family or the freedom to live in a more desirable place.
But for me, it meant none of those things. As I signed the papers, it took everything I had to keep tears from washing away the ink before it was dry. What I had signed was a declaration that my life was a total failure, and would never be the same again.
While it marked the completion of my financial collapse, an intense battle with shame and self-worth was just beginning.
For so long I’d hidden my low self-esteem in my success. I suddenly found myself back where I began, feeling naked and exposed, with nothing but the searing pain of not-good-enough. I also struggled with anxiety and depression, and couldn’t accept what had happened.
I was stuck in that place where we can’t let go of the past, or move toward an uncertain future.
I’d thrown myself down a career path meant to fill my emptiness with self-importance and possessions. But I never felt passionate about it, and I wasn’t fulfilled—two factors that aided in my undoing. When I discovered that all of my unhealed wounds remained, despite my success, my motivation to succeed was replaced by an intense fear of losing what I had—and my identity in the process.
I’d chosen my career and my relationships for all the wrong reasons, and I paid dearly for it.
But the memory of another day is also burned into my mind forever.
It was a beautiful evening for a paddle—the perfect ending to a long day. Glassy calm waters capped off by a magnificent sunset painted in brilliant oranges and pinks. I felt such gratitude as my board glided to a stop on the beach.
It had been one of my best days as a paramedic. A former patient stopped by the firehouse. The last time I’d seen him was at the scene of a tragic car accident several months before. I hadn’t recognized him at first because he was a mess that night, and wasn’t expected to survive. But against the odds, he had. And now here he was, thanking me for saving his life.
I was overwhelmed. This felt much larger than anything I’d ever felt before. I could never adequately express the amount of gratitude and joy I felt for his life—and mine.
After he left, I couldn’t help but think about how different things were for me now. I might work longer hours and make less money, but I never could have imagined how fulfilling and joyful my life would become. Making a difference in people’s lives is priceless—an ironic twist since the price of things used to be the only way I valued my life—but not anymore.
My life changed so dramatically over the course of a few years that it’s almost unrecognizable. I could never have imagined building a life so different and so fulfilling than what I had before.
But it wasn’t magic, and it didn’t happen overnight.
It took heartache, courage, resilience, and the ability to learn some tough lessons.
No one likes personal disasters—they’re painful and can make life feel unmanageable for a while. But the truth is, just like forest fires are healthy for the ecosystem by burning away dead and unhealthy wood, major setbacks have the power to clear out the parts of our lives that don’t serve us so that stronger, healthier lives can grow.
Major life changes can be scary, but at some point, the fear of repeating mistakes in a mostly joyless life becomes scarier than making big changes. Giving up our old way of life takes guts—but pursuing our passions is what makes life worth living.
We don’t have to fear the bitter sting of loss; we’ll feel it sometimes and that’s okay. It’s part of our story on our journey to becoming who we’re meant to be.
We often don’t see it at the time, but setbacks and loss come with opportunities. We find ourselves at a crossroads: we can either remain victims of our mistakes, or choose to be brave and go after a better life. Many of us might have needed a not-so-gentle shove down that new path, but if we’re willing to use adversity as a catalyst for major change, we just might end up living a life we never dreamed possible.
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” ~ Mary Oliver