Wednesday Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg launched the new social network LeanIn.org devoted to helping women encourage each other to "lean in" to their careers. This week and going forward, HuffPost Women will be featuring posts from women reflecting on the moments in their careers when they "leaned in" -- pursued their ambitions despite their fears -- or "leaned back" -- focused more on other aspects of their lives so that they could lean in with more energy later on.
In 1989, I melted down.
My best friend died that year after a five-year battle with cancer. Besides my total grief at losing someone I loved, her death did what deaths often do: It caused me to re-evaluate my own life. Truth is, I didn't much like what I saw. I held a top-management job at a suburban newspaper but dreaded every day I went to it. And then I came home to a toxic relationship built on a foundation of lies (his) and compromises (mine).
For years I had been living proof that inertia can be the most powerful force of all. For all intents and purposes, you could have painted me paralyzed. I was trapped and it took a friend's death to jolt me from my complacency. But her death, while opening my eyes to how accustomed I had become to the daily misery, hardly prepared me to do anything about it. No, it just made it worse without Robin there to talk to.
For a woman of many words, I suddenly had few. I no longer had anyone to listen, so why would it matter? It was the inability to sleep and eat that eventually led me to seek help. The counselor I found in the phone book offered the standard advice given to those who grieve: "Don't make any major changes until you heal."
I ignored her. Instead of continuing to do nothing, I drove home and sent Mr. Toxic packing (no worries, he simply moved in with another woman and sponged off her instead of me). The next day, I rented out my house for the summer. I was fortunate to own a modest home in a highly desirable area of the Jersey shore where a religious community from Brooklyn summered en masse. My house fetched the equivalent of about half-a-year's salary -- in cash and delivered in a Bloomingdale's shopping bag.
I then invoked the company policy -- state law? -- that allowed employees who were basket cases to take an unpaid leave of absence; I think it was called the "Don't Go Postal Act." I had untethered myself completely from the Bad Man, the Bad Job and covered the hefty mortgage payment, but there was still a missing piece to the puzzle: What exactly should I do with myself?
That answer came a few days later in the form of a tiny Sunday New York Times' Travel section ad. A group called Volunteer For Israel was looking for people to supplement the Israel Defense Forces. This wasn't engaging in front-lines combat, but living in barracks and providing civilian support to the military, or in a nursing home, school or hospital.
And that's how I wound up, at age 39, as a volunteer in the Israeli army. It was a program aimed at college students and retirees, but there were more than a smattering of lost souls like me -- people who for various reasons, just couldn't quite figure out what they were supposed to be doing with their lives at the moment. I jokingly called it the French Foreign Legion for Jews, a place where you went to disappear for awhile.
While my previous travel adventures, like backpacking for a year after college around Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East had been quests to find myself, this trip was the polar opposite: I wanted to lose myself.
And it worked. There is nothing quite like a military experience to strip you of any decision-making responsibilities. They tell you what time to get up, what to wear, what you'll eat, what you'll do for your every waking hour. They even do your laundry for you. Me? I questioned nothing. I just followed. I learned how to be a good soldier, and yes, picked up some firearms experience along the way.
I recall that we were a motley collection of volunteers that particular summer. About 30 of us came from points around the world and met up at the airport in Tel Aviv to be bussed to our military base assignments. With me was a college girl whose parents had forced her to come to Israel thinking it would give her life meaning, two women about my age from Miami whose summer break from being doctors' wives later turned into a permanent arrangement, and a South African guy named Joe who answered every question with a question and took notes in a little leather-bound journal. I spent the next 10 years expecting to see myself on the pages of a novel and hoped Joe would have the decency to at least change my name.
I changed oil on the military trucks, peeled potatoes in the kitchen, washed 9 million dishes and eventually taught English to new Russian immigrants living in the settlements. I rode crowded public buses around Israel, learning that the last seats to fill were the ones by the windows because the shatterproof glass was often no match for the rocks being thrown. I swam in the Dead Sea, the Red Sea and the Sea of Gaililee and felt the presence of God in all of them. I hiked to the top of Masada to watch the sun rise; I climbed along the Old City walls to watch it set and I walked the Lebanese border fence alongside hired Bedouin trackers who taught me the difference between footprints made by a Syrian sandal and those of young Israelis looking for a place to neck in private. I sat at schwarma stands with soldiers and got used to the fact they kept their Uzis loaded as they wolfed down their food. And I stood back and watched as they blew up a package left at the table next to us. "It is just desserts," said Levi, my soldier-lunch partner. "Get it? Just our dessert." I got it.
Eventually, the lesson I learned was that the best way to lose yourself is to immerse yourself in someone else's problems. I love Israel for many reasons, including for teaching me that lesson. While the Madrichot (our group leaders) spoke English, they all had that attitude of Israeli indifference. Your best friend died? Your man cheated? The toilet on the base overflowed? It was all met with a shoulder-shrug that said, "so fix it."
And I came home and did just that.
Have a "Lean In" or "Lean Back" story of your own? Please email it it in 500 words or fewer, along with a headshot, bio and personal photo to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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