Radical Family Sabbatical

I met the Scherr family some time ago when Diana contacted me to pick my brain about our family’s year abroad. She and her husband, Matt, had a hankering for travel and something was calling them to take their two young children and go on an adventure! Now, there were all sorts of reasons not to go. All sorts of people advising them to be reasonable. 

Of course I cautioned her as well, but I also threw fuel on the fire.

I warned her about how a family sabbatical can be life changing, exhilarating, and soul-refreshing. How it knits family bonds even tighter through such powerful shared experience.

I explicitly remember telling her how pushing past self-imposed limits might be scary, but somehow highly satisfying. That sacrifice would be involved, but so would extreme happiness and pride. She hung up the phone with a lot to chew on as they made their decision.

So it was wonderful when I learned, later, that they had pulled up stakes and moved to Ecuador. I signed up for Matt’s blog Wu Wei We Go and cheered them on as they found their way in a new and exciting culture.

Matt Scherr of Radical Family Sabbatical is our guest for today. I know you will enjoy his words of wisdon~

Psychosis is not usually a rapid-onset disease. It typically takes years to develop and hindsight to piece together the telltale symptoms that confirm a positive diagnosis. And so it was — after we announced our plans to quit our jobs and take our children to Ecuador for almost two years on a “sabbatical” — that a number of our friends and family looked back through our past to determine just how long we had been insane.

For both my wife, Diana, and me, one of the first indications of “drift from normalcy” was our first international travel. Diana had a job opportunity in Ireland (backpacker-style, working in a pub). I took a trip with my family to Thailand and then to visit my sister’s Peace Corps site in a village on a remote island in the Philippines. These trips were transformative for us both and undeniably marked our progress down the crazy path.

It is at least where I began to see everything that I thought was “normal” in a completely upside-down way. Until that time I certainly used the word “conventional”, but I didn’t truly understand what it meant. And I used “unconventional” as a synonym for “abnormal”, but would later come to believe (as only a crazy person can) that it was a synonym for “enlightened”. Diana’s experience was less wonkish, but we had both discovered entirely different worlds of human experience, which in turn made us see our own life experiences in a different way.

Had you forced me to define “conventional” before my travels without the aid of a dictionary, I’d have said something like, “the most common, rational, tested, and agreed upon way to manifest oneself in the world” (one tends to puff things up a bit in college, doesn’t one). Conventional suggested to me a “right” way of being that naturally occurred through something like cultural evolution. The group that coexisted the best wins, and however they “are” is best, and that is conventional. There was a value implied to my understanding of convention.

But then I started to go insane. I began to see convention in a truly evolutionary way. That is, evolution only says that in a given environment, the fitter organism survives. There is not good or bad, right or wrong. I began to see conventional only as “a way” but not “the way”. And I also began to see how limiting it is to see things in “ways” at all. The scales fell from my eyes and unfathomable possibility opened up before me. And I began to talk to myself, giggle inappropriately, and wear tinfoil and antennae on my head.

Well, not really that last part. But as others examined our decision to take a sabbatical, they all pretty much agreed they’d seen us do stuff like that somewhere along the line, and boy they really should have seen this coming, and should they intervene or just hope Matt and Di come to their senses?

I should be honest and confess that my insanity makes me exaggerate a bit. Those who were not absolutely excited about and supportive (and envious) of our sabbatical represented a small minority. Maybe that’s because where we live (Vail, Colorado), unconventional is, well, pretty conventional. You have to be pretty crazy to live willingly in a place with half the income and twice the cost of living. Either way, we actually got a lot of support for our adventure.

The genesis of what we call an unconventional life (and others may call crazy) doesn’t necessarily explain why we would quit our jobs, take our kids out of school, and go live somewhere we’d never been and didn’t speak the language. Maybe to some it does (because, duh, why wouldn’t you?). But we did have to elucidate our decision for many, whether they were supportive or not. If someone asks you why you decided to do this, you can’t just say, “None of your business” or “We’re just pretty sure it’s the right thing for us to do.” Well, maybe you can say the latter, but we tried and it leaves people still looking at you askance as they carefully make their diagnosis.

So here’s my revisionist justification. Diana and I were both transformed by our travel (for the better, we still believe). We believe we are more respectful, open-minded, empathetic, generous, and responsible global (and local) citizens because of what we learned about the world and our role within it. That transformation happened relatively late in life. I often think about how much better a person I might be had I learned a number of things earlier in life.

And so the question for us was, what would it be like to have a more global cultural experience as part of one’s fundamental development — during the sponge kind of learning that happens when you’re young and you don’t even know that you’re learning? Well, we had two prize-winning guinea pigs in our care. (Man, they’ll let anyone have kids, won’t they?) And to be honest with ourselves, we really were experimenting with our children. We believed this experience would be valuable for them in the long run, but ultimately that was just a hypothesis.

We still don’t know. Within months of our return from Ecuador, our oldest, Piper, asked if we could go back to Ecuador, at least to visit. “I miss Ecuador more than I ever missed Colorado while we were gone.” This from she who constantly clarified to people we talked to in Ecuador, “We don’t live in Ecuador, we’re only visiting for 21 months.” She was six when we went to Ecuador.

Duncan was only four, so he doesn’t have the compartmentalized memory Piper does. There is no geography at four, so he can’t yet differentiate his memories of there from home. He just knows what happened. That the people in his memories had brown skin, and that no one eats chicken feet here, will likely be the facts that will help him make a historical timeline for himself later.

We are home now and working to infect others with the crazy with our website promoting family sabbaticals and helping people do them. But different stages of a child’s life represent different stages of learning, and it’s important to impact as many as possible. So once more unto the beach, dear friends; we’re planning on another sabbatical. We will again rip up our children’s tender roots and plant them, for a time, somewhere else. Poor little darlings. But, alas, such is the life of an unconventionalist-in-training.

Matt Scherr has traveled to 23 countries with occasional visits to jobs and the real world. The last real job he quit (to take a family sabbatical) was as executive director of a local environmental sustainability organization. He launched Radical Family Sabbatical to help families live extraordinary lives through travel, learning, and entrepreneurship. He also kept a blog for the family’s
Ecuador experience, called (for some reason) Wu Wei We Go. You can follow Radical Family Sabbatical on Facebook and Twitter, and follow your dreams by signing up at RadicalFamilySabbatical.com.