This time two years ago, we were preparing to depart Costa Rica and head home to the United States. We were debating on taking another international teaching job in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Valencia, Spain, or Cartagena, Columbia, all great locations. Having choices is a double edged sword. I always am extremely thankful that through our hard work, a lot of luck, and the grace of God, we have options. On the other hand, I usually cause myself considerable stress because I have too many choices. We finally decided to choose coming back to western Washington, also a great location. One of my problems, however, is that I have a tendency to look back at what may have been if I had made a different decision, which usually drives my wife crazy.
One of life’s lessons that I have been slow to learn is that we all have choices, and they are all good if you make them. Harboring regrets and should-have-beens is extremely unhealthy. After a while, it even can be paralyzing. If I had stayed in the U.S. Navy, then maybe I would have retired by now as a full commander or even captain. I also, however, might not have married the wonderful woman I did and had two amazing boys with her. If I had stayed in my old job as a campus president for a small private college, then maybe I would be more financially secure and have climbed the corporate ladder higher. I would have also missed out on our boys’ growth and spent more money needlessly on things I really did not want. If I took the job in Ethiopia, then maybe we would still be in Africa. Do I know? Does it really matter? Am I unhappy? No to all three.
Life is what you make it. We are a sum of our experiences, good and bad. By experiencing more, you grow more. The path you take is up to you. I like the quote from renowned photographer Cheryl Jacob Nicolai, ““Never compare your journey with someone else’s. It’s a marathon with no finish line. Someone else may start out faster than you, may seem to progress more quickly than you, but every runner has their own pace. Your journey is your journey, not a competition.” Too often we compare ourselves to the perceptions we have of other people. At times when I am upset with my current state of affairs, I look at some stranger who owns a bigger house or nicer car or more prestigious job and think that I could be him. If I only…
How do I know that the stranger is truly happy, fulfilled, or satisfied? If I am those things, then why should I care about artificially ranking myself with someone else? Somewhere along our journey, we got off the merry-go-round of modern society. We chose, like the poet Robert Frost suggested, to take the path less traveled. If others want to take the same worn path, so be it. This simple paradigm shift has made all the difference. When we ceased to care what norms and restrictions society tried to place on us, we became liberated.
We cherish experiences over material objects. We relish our time together with family and friends over impressing strangers. We develop ourselves to our full potential over honing a false persona for others. Traveling and experiencing other places as an explorer, not as a tourist, has opened our eyes to a myriad of options we never saw before. Door that we thought were shut are now open. For example, without an expensive house to maintain, we can follow our passions. When we thought that a house made us happy and proud, we were forced to work jobs that afforded us the luxury. We now look at a house as just a house. Many are beautiful, but in the end they are still just places to live. True living is outside the confines of the house. Our sense of self-worth comes from who we are, not what we own.
Amazingly, this shift in values has brought us much closer together as a family. We make decisions based on what is best for our boys. We give them the best life we can afford; we spend time together, which is priceless. As they grow up, they will remember the lessons from our experiences not the houses they happened to live in. Is this the best option for our children? Maybe, maybe not. Our family motto is, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” So far, our lives have been an incredible journey.
If I can give one small piece of unsolicited advice, it is to urge you to embark on your own personal adventure. I have met many people that have regrets in life for not doing things. I have yet to meet someone who regrets following their dreams.