I’d done that week. The last five days had been a blur of work meetings, car pools and errands. The rush of the morning routine to get everyone out the door to work and school. The responses to work emails jabbed out on my cell phone as I stood at the stove making dinner. The baskets of laundry folded while staring blankly at late night television. Was that this week? Or last? What in the world did I do this week? This wasn’t a sudden case of amnesia. I just couldn’t think of anything distinguishable from the week before…or the week before that… or the week before that.
The conversation rolled on as other friends talked about funny and annoying events transpiring in their lives. I sat there quietly for a while, which I can assure you is definitely not normal for my extravert personality. Eventually I shook off my mild, internal panic attack and enjoyed the rest of the evening. However, the weight of this realization sat in my lap like a sack of bricks. Despite all the wonderful things in my life, I wasn’t happy. Our life was blurring by us, passing in a haze of familiar obligations, and there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it except smile, move on with the conversation and take a big gulp of wine.
Over the coming weeks, my husband and I talked about this “blur” situation a lot. We could anticipate our regrets twenty years down the road when we looked back and recognized we’d let ourselves down. Instead of intentionally choosing our lives, we’d gotten sucked into the distractions and chaos of the modern world and let life choose us.
That’s when we started rolling around an idea. At the time, it was a crazy, hair-brained pipedream, but unlike most pipedreams this one really stuck. We couldn’t quite shake it. It was there as we scrambled through the hectic morning routine. It was there while we drove around town to different kid activities. It was there when we answered work emails at all hours of the night. What if we just sold it all and traveled the world for a while?
Crazy, right? We’d taken a couple international trips with our girls before and wanted to give them more experiences with other cultures and languages. We figured we could manage homeschooling them at 10, 7 and 5 years of age. Most importantly, this adventure could get us out of the rat race and help us slow life down a bit. The more we thought about it, the less crazy and hair-brained the idea seemed. Maybe an around-the-world trip was something we could pull off.
Then somehow, 6 months later we actually were pulling it off. In the spring of 2014 we sold our house and almost everything we owned. We put the things we really cared about in a storage unit, gave away the rest and took off on this unknown, unplanned nomadic adventure. I’ll admit there were moments leading up to our departure where I would hear panicky questions running through my mind. What are you thinking? How will you find another job?! How will this affect the girls?!
My logical mind would respond calmly to those internal objections because we’d put a purpose on this adventure. In an effort to understand the challenges faced in other countries, we set a goal for ourselves to volunteer 100 times. Our “100 Ways to Change the World” adventure was born. We knew it was a rather lofty goal and we might not reach it during this trip, but it was there to force us to meet new people and get involved in the communities we visited. When my thoughts began to question this decision, I would turn to this service work goal and remind myself of the good we would be doing along the way.
Over the next 18 months our family traveled to 24 countries on 6 continents. We saw some of the most breathtakingly beautiful things we’d ever seen, and we lived through some of the most tragically heartbreaking experiences we’ve ever known. Our volunteer work took us to Croatian beaches strewn with thousands of plastic bottles and Fijian villages without plumbing or electricity. We helped at African schools full of children proud to be the first in their families to receive formal educations. We served food on Bolivian streets where other children grow up homeless and surrounded by drug use. We fed livestock on family farms, served juice at blood drives, and picked ticks and fleas off of puppies at animal shelters. Our family volunteered 56 times over the course of our trip and each experience taught us something about the world and ourselves.
When we returned to the United States a couple weeks ago, the change in us was obvious. We had become the family we truly want to be. We’ve found appreciation for the little things, like clean water and safe transportation. Our relationships among each other have improved in every way imaginable, and we’ve cultivated a desire to remain involved and active in our local community. So much has changed.
Our paradigm shift has allowed us to clearly see the frantic pace we’d been keeping in our old life. As a typical busy modern family, we’d packed our schedule with meetings, practices, lessons, errands, home projects and possessions, all of which served as distractions from the things really important to us. In trying to keep up with our crazy life, we were overlooking the only things bringing true, authentic happiness: time with family, time in nature, and time to explore the world in our own unique ways.
Success looks very different to us now. We’re no longer grooming our children to attend the best schools, obtain high-paying positions and acquire all those symbols of status our society has come to associate with monetary success. We now see that true life success can only be measured by the positive impact we have on the world around us. It’s about finding our purpose, having the courage to follow it, and ultimately using it to make ourselves and others happy.
Perhaps the most beautiful thing about our family’s around-the-world adventure is that we realized we didn’t need the adventure at all. Anyone can gain a new perspective on life, whether they’ve been to 1 country or 31 countries. Admittedly, we do treasure the memories and photos from our trip. However, when it really comes down to it, the life-changing lessons we will take away from this experience could have been learned right here at home. Those lessons came from the acts of service.
Volunteer work wasn’t a big part of our family’s life before this journey. I helped out with the girls’ school and a few nonprofit organizations in our town, but service work was not something we thought about much back then. When this trip made volunteer work a central focus in our life together, our perspective began to change. As we met people from all walks of life, we found ourselves fully acknowledging the advantages we were born into. We recognized ourselves in others and, in the process, gained a new level of compassion and empathy. Most importantly, our daughters witnessed over and over again how small acts of kindness can dramatically improve another person’s life. Now at the ages of just 11, 9 and 6 the girls feel empowered to make the world a better place. With each of our volunteer projects we saw a consistent theme - giving our time to others actually gave us much more in return.
Our family is opening a new chapter. I call it the “epic adventure epilogue.” In the coming months we’ll be transitioning back to the busy modern family life we left a year and a half ago, but as we do we’ll be working to engrain a new philosophy and a very different set of priorities into it. At the top of the list will be continuing to volunteer as a family and finding ways to sprinkle those random acts of kindness throughout our days. We will reach that goal of 100 service projects and when we do we’ll keep going.
Our travels through dozens of cities in far-reaching corners of the earth showed us a fundamental truth that was with us all along. As human souls, we’re all the same. We’re all connected. We might come from very different circumstances, but we’re all here for the same reason. When we slow down and give our time to others, this truth becomes abundantly clear. Perhaps our family didn’t need a trip around the planet to reach this new perspective, but it’s certainly been one of most fun lessons we’ve ever learned.
Tracey Carisch is the mom of a typical American family that woke up one day and decided to do something different. They aren't rich. They aren't crazy—at least they don't think so. They've simply decided to take advantage of a flexible work schedule and go nomadic for a while. This leap into the unknown will help them find answers to important questions about the world.