It’s time for Thursday’s trek to advice-land, where all your problems can be solved with the wisdom of romance novels.
Dear Smart Bitch Sarah:
You know that saying “the penny dropped?” My penny just dropped and I’m not sure what to do because the penny is huge and it changes everything.
I’ve been content, I guess, with my life until recently. I have a decent job that’s steady and pays ok, and I have a boyfriend who I hang out with a lot, and he’s fun and a very good guy, and everything was comfortable.
Then while reading the news I read about this young woman who sold everything she owned to found a home for orphans in Nepal, and since I read it I have been thinking about it constantly. I don’t necessarily want to go to Nepal, but I’m boiling with the need to do something, to leave now and make a difference somwhere else. I’ve been researching the idea incessantly, from the Peace Corps to teaching English in Japan and working for travel guides in small countries in need of tourist business.
The trouble is, I’m not stupid and I know the economy is awful, and that if I take the time to go away now, when I get back, my job, and probably my boyfriend, will have moved on without me. But I can’t shake the feeling that I want to do something now, and I wanted to ask your advice. Can you help? Or, more specifically, can a romance novel help me?
Ants in my pants
First, the fact that you want to do something altruistic and are inspired by someone who made an extraordinary change in her life is not at all a bad thing. Give yourself some credit: wanting to help is admirable, and in the current doom-and-gloom is a very needed and important goal.
That said, trying to change everything is a dangerous proposition, and you’re right to recognize the risks. I think you need to pay attention to three things:
First, you: Are you trying to change everything because you’re bored with everything you have in your routine presently? Ask yourself if everything needs to change, or if maybe you can channel your newfound (and wonderful) energy and drive into something that can be added to your present schedule. Maybe you want to cook or deliver meals for people who are unable to leave their homes, or you want to get involved with a group like Habitat for Humanity or a local group that helps foster children, homeless animals, or people in need of literacy education.
No matter where you land with your desire to do something, do something, do something now, you will make a difference, but I think part of what you may be looking for is a more targeted and vivid sense of purpose that your present life isn’t providing. It is not a sin to ponder what volunteering will yield in terms of your own happiness, but I do think you need to examine your motivation a bit because changing everything is a very, very drastic step indeed. Instead of devoting your life to a specific purpose, you seem to be running away. Whatever it is you may be running from, it will follow you. Better to face it and kick its ass, then find your happiness.
There are no shortage of contemporary romances that start with heroines, or less often heroes, relocating, uprooting themselves entirely, and starting their lives over clean and fresh, without a pesky or immediately available backstory or ancillary characters like, you know, parents to muck up the happy ending, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.
The trouble is, without fail, no matter who or what the problem was for the heroine or hero in their previous life, that problem comes back. If something needs fixing, it’ll still need fixing no matter what country you’re in, or what work you’re doing. A panic response that causes the heroine to toss everything she owns in the car and head out, or drives the hero to relocate to a beige apartment in a beige condo complex in an anonymous town with a name like Blandsville is still a response to something – and that something needs to be dealt with. You are still you, with all your backstory, even if you’ve experienced a complete change of venue.
Second: your boyfriend: Your letter makes me raise an eyebrow because, while brief, it seems to be between the lines that you’re bored with him and that the prospect of leaving him for upwards of a year doesn’t stun or upset you too much. If you’re with him because it’s habit, perhaps for his sake and yours this is a habit you need to break. Unless there’s some massive passion that I’m missing in your letter, your boredom may stem in part from what appears to be a stagnant relationship.
Third, your job: Your job may not be waiting for you when you come back. In fact, given the layoffs and unemployment rates that rise each week, it’s probably a given that, unless you are in a specialized field or related to the owner, taking a year to volunteer may cost you your employment and benefits when you return. This is an important consideration, and I’m glad you’ve noted it.
I can’t make a decision for you but I can say that smaller steps may be better. I think you ought to find your niche locally, and volunteer in smaller portions – even a few hours a day is more than many people can contribute. Once you discover your strength and match it with a specific purpose, you can look into more complete and total use of your time.
I find that when I have the desire to change everything, it’s really a response to an irritation that I haven’t identified yet. If you want to help, start now, and gradually increase. Remember: you can’t be a heroine if you don’t have your shit together. Pushing away from everything, from your car to your apartment to your boyfriend to your job and your income, without a specific goal or plan in place isn’t altruism. It’s self-defeating, and you’re in a better position now, with or without your boyfriend, to make a profound difference than if you chuck it all and move halfway around the world without a clear path to your happy ending.