I wrote the piece, Risks at Twenty Six almost a decade ago. Where I debated accepting a volunteer placement on the small island of Tonga. I was looking to experience a change of scenery for a year with the hopes of forever changing my life. It was the kind of adventure I had been day dreaming about during my regular office job – no doubts there. But still, I wasn’t sure about what to do.
One hand was open to possibility. The other was clenched – holding tightly and afraid to let go of the life I knew: my friends I grew up with; the gym I went to six days a week, the body I had spent years developing, and the confidence that came with that; the city I knew well; and my corporate career path. Without these things, I feared I wouldn’t have myself or the comfort they provided.
Ultimately, I went ahead. I spent the year away. And as expected, my life was never the same. I ended up moving to Sydney upon my return, and then Melbourne where I have been ever since. I definitely questioned the ‘pay off’ of my decision — especially at the time and the year following. But based on how things have turned out, I couldn’t be more sure. There’s something to be said about making judgments based on your trajectory rather than where you are currently.
Post-pandemic, I have an established life in 2022. Things are in place, I’m comfortable. But I’ve been day dreaming again. Looking out the window and wondering if there is a way to have more meaning, challenge, growth, and newness in my life. Completing my counselling studies has opened a whole new world of possibilities. And now on the cusp of turning 35 – not too far from a mid-life crisis — I’m finding myself at a familiar crossroads with a big decision to make.
One path is familiarity, comfort, and security. Life as it has been working my secure government job with the extra benefit of working from home. The other is a winding path — uphill and strenuous, dimly lit leading into the unknown. It’s a new role as a therapeutic youth worker. It’s the kind of work that’s emotionally demanding and will have me in an intense and unpredictable environment. From my current day-to-day in my ugg boots, the contrast couldn’t be greater.
One way to look at things is a choice between what’s easy and hard. For some, the decision would be obvious. But I’m one of those people who feel the most alive in the arena. Who, when stationary for too long, feel overcome by a tinge of sadness. Hence my love for weightlifting and that feeling of progression and pushing myself. This is the state of being ‘in flow’ which is especially desirable to ADHD minds like mine. Of course, you don’t want things to be too hard and overwhelming. There’s a sweet spot to aim for.
Another lens is that of meaning. This work will take me from behind a desk into the trenches of life where support is needed the most. Through the work of Dr Gabor Mate, I’ve learned so much about the ongoing impacts of adverse childhood experiences. These young people who don’t get a chance, never have the chance to grow into healthy functioning adults. They risk mental health issues, addiction, and imprisonment. My partner is a teacher in a public school (lower social economic area) and tells me about what she sees. But not only that, also the relationships she forms and the difference she makes. It’s inspiring. And it’s made me want to go after a similar feeling of fulfillment.
Meaning arises from our relationships to others, having a mission tied to contributing to society, making sense of our experiences and who are through narrative, and connecting to something bigger than the self. – Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith
Of course, I recognise that while there is work to be done, I might not be the best person for it. And that’s the part of me that is afraid and questioning my decision to step into this new chapter of my life. There’s a lot of pressure when it comes to dealing with another’s wellbeing. Luckily, I’m starting in a casual position so I can slowly ‘dip my toes’ rather than completely diving in. Emotionally demanding work takes a toll on one’s nervous system and that I have to take care of myself in order to properly take care of others.
My dear friend Candice reflected the importance of self-care in addition to her own learning that when we are afraid, we don’t always recognise all the ways we are also being brave. I had to sit with that for a moment. And as I leaned into it, I felt better. More empowered. Particularly as I recalled all the ways I’ve been brave before. From my first step (not that I remember) to starting my first ever fulltime job, to going to Tonga, moving to Sydney, moving again to Melbourne, starting a new degree, to now — there’s a first time for everything. And as we fall into routine and do fewer new things, it’s easy to forget that we’ve faced ‘first time fears’ plenty of times before.
I’ve also got myself through this. In addition to my formal qualifications, I have certain personal strengths and characteristics. This is my ‘nature’ which makes the work that uses them my ‘natural habitat’. Candice mentioned my ability to connect with people. Reminding me how I’ve collected friend after friend, meeting them where they are – providing both validation and healthy encouragement. Working with young people especially, I know this will be invaluable along with my general youthfulness and curiosity. This is the vibe my partner says I give off — which is also embedded into the ethos of Boy Under the Bridge.
That insight is hidden in the word vocation itself, which is rooted in the Latin for “voice.” Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling the who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live-but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life. – Let Your Life Speak, Parker J. Palmer
I’m now going to end on a vision that came to me in a men’s breathwork circle. Our last session was on the topic of death and rebirth. In conversation, I shared my story of heading to Tonga. During the breathing itself, what came to me was a giant tree. I saw myself as having grown into it over the last few years. Now standing strong with my roots planted deep into a foundation that nourishes me. My branches reaching high and far, providing shelter to those who seek it.
It also reminded me of a conversation with another friend who has worked in a similar role supporting young people. She said that while the work is challenging, it’s best to focus on the small wins and ‘planting seeds’. This means reminding oneself that any efforts now, though seeming in vain, can lead to changes later down the road. I found this comforting as I start out and am eager to make an impact — proving myself to myself, and everyone that’s counting on me.
I’ve done my first two shadow shifts which have made it clear I have much to both learn and grow accustomed to… I’ll be exposed to some very confronting things, but I will also have the chance to witness the healing potential of both the human spirit and therapeutic work. The dark and the light go together. And it gives me a real sense of hope to know that change is possible.
It will also be a privilege to learn. Even though they don’t recognise it, these young people are truly inspiring. An example that comes to mind is a good friend who took a young person ‘under his wing’ at the gym – picking him up and also training with him. We recently all did a training session together. As expected, at double his age, we were stronger and leading the way. But once I heard a bit about his story, I was in awe. It’s not my place to go into detail; but the word for him, like the young people I’ll be working with, and also myself, is brave. In different ways, it’s what life asks of us. And how we become our best.
As I write this from my childhood home as I visit, it’s made me reflect on my experiences as a young person. Both what I was given and what I needed.