Finding the Path to ‘Purposeful Transition’


2017 was a hard year for my husband and me. Our son enlisted in the Marine Corps and was badly hurt in training. If it wasn’t hard enough to watch his hopes for success in the service evaporate, we also endured almost a full year of no contact – other than a much appreciated few days we were allowed to spend with him while he was in a hospital and a few very precious phone calls.

The rest of the time, we could communicate only by snail mail. The psychological and physical stamina his situation required of him was extreme and we felt tortured by our isolation from him. At the same time, our daughter packed her bags and took off for Colorado on a wing and a prayer to find new beginnings for herself. We were excited by her dreams but struggled with, for the first time ever, being so geographically removed that we couldn’t simply “jump to” when she encountered hard times.

Happily, they both survived and came out better and stronger on the other side. To celebrate, we decided to embark on a “first ever.” We traveled alone for two incredible weeks with absolutely no timelines or obligations to friends or family. We stayed where we wanted to when we wanted to. We picked the direction we wanted to as the choices came upon us.

That year of anxiety and feelings of uselessness followed by this incredible trip led to what I have come to call our “moment of transformation.” We were reminded of what life was like when we first met – the joy of spending time together, of minimal responsibilities, and the excitement of filling a blank slate as we developed our future.

And that led us to a profound shift in thinking: we missed our early days more than we had realized. We spent that chapter rushing from multiple jobs to multiple child-focused events: football practice, Tang Soo Do, dance, music, writing, and wrestling camps. We spent long hours landscaping, enjoying time with friends, fires on the deck, and camping out.

The days were packed, but they were full of joy and togetherness. I can still smell the incredible barbecue we created with my brother on our front porch into the late hours of the night as our children ran throughout the neighborhood learning the great things children learn as they play hide and seek, build forts, and play quickly organized games of Wiffle ball or the like.

Then, somehow and without us realizing, it all morphed into just our jobs. We both got promotions and higher pay (yay — less financial worry!) and along with that more responsibility, more pressure, more relationships to negotiate and manage.

In retrospect, our lives had become consumed with the worry and exhaustion of work. We had become responsible for other peoples’ income, their safety, and their advancement in life. We were at the beck and call of others who needed our emotional attention, our praise, our supervision, and our careful development of their commitment to our professional purpose in life. We returned home every day exhausted — the barbecues and time with friends faded away, the joy of refurbishing and maintaining our home transformed into a burdensome chore, and the simple pleasures our children had helped to bring into focus were gone.

My husband stepped away from his career several years ago – but he replaced it with support for mine. He has spent long, long days alone at home because I often work from before sunup to long after sundown to fulfill my obligations. I have returned home spent from a day filled with deadlines, meeting expectations, offering nurturing, supporting a team, and planning for complex future organizational goals and aspirations. I often fall into bed exhausted after just a cursory hour or two with him because I need to retreat and rest up for another day. Gone are the long, lazy evenings and weekends, the relaxing time with friends, and the simplicity of planning just for tomorrow instead of weeks, months and years down the road.

During what I have come to call “that transformational trip,” we had many long discussions about the difference between our “old life” and our “new reality.” We realized we wanted very much to return to “the early days” of relaxed joy.

But how could we? We had fallen into a pattern of thought: this would be our life as we prepared for retirement. And preparation meant paying off the mortgage, saving enough money, getting ready for the days we would have no pressure to answer to. But at what cost?

As it turns out, the cost was our emotional and physical well being and, in the end, we decided it just wasn’t worth it. It meant more to us to purposefully plan for a transition that would allow us to nurture a calm, mindful approach to life than it was to stay on that traditional path to retirement.

So, on the first day back to work from those glorious two weeks, I gave notice: in one year, I would leave my job. In the interim, I would focus on setting up and assisting my colleagues to transition to a new executive. I would work to create an environment that would move me toward a calm, mindful approach to the rest of our lives.

I made the commitment to start every day with a thank you for our blessings and a commitment to implementing this new-found “purposeful transition.”

My last day on the job will be July 3. I have been offered a new one that will allow me to make a meaningful contribution just one person at a time, but at the same time will allow me to work a more limited and less demanding schedule.

In this new, mindful environment, I plan to reinvigorate the landscaping, the home remodeling, and most important, the time spent with friends and family. Here’s to purposeful transition!

Tammy Gentzel is the executive director of the Centre County United Way and has worked as an executive in the nonprofit, human services field for close to 30 years. This column is coordinated by whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation. 

This article first appeared in the Centre Daily Times on Sunday, May 26, 2019.