Most of us live highly routinized lives. When we get up in the morning, we can usually predict with reasonable accuracy just how the day will unfold, maybe even the week or month. If we’re content with our lives, this seems fine. In fact, unless we’re among those rare people who are born adventurers, like Lewis and Clark, Amelia Earhart, and Edmund Hillary, we seem to be wired by evolution to seek a basic degree of comfort, safety, and security in our lives. Our survival as a species probably depends upon taking up steady habits of life–think farming and herding–that don’t permit us to stray far beyond our physical and emotional comfort zones.

Of course, we daydream about what it would be like to chuck it all and go sailing around the world, move to a cabin in the north woods and write poetry, join the Peace Corps and go to Zambia or Guatemala or Moldova. But rarely do we take such radical steps. Instead, we spend two weeks hiking in Belize or taking in the sights of Prague or doing a writers’ workshop in Northern California, and then come home refreshed, renewed, and ready to take up our usual tasks and get back into our normal routines.

But, sometimes, we have a harder time settling back into the old groove. We may feel an indefinable sense of yearning or regret for something we can’t quite name, like an emptiness at the core of the smoothly running machine we’ve made of our lives. It’s all okay, but there’s no real passion, no savor to it–we feel safe, alright, but also as if something were dying inside of us. We begin to think of all the things we might have done, the choices we might have made, the unexpressed possibilities within us that still somehow beckon. As we grow older, we can almost hear the words “too late, too late” faintly echoing in our heads.

Of course, as therapists, perhaps half the people we treat are in our offices because they feel they have somehow missed the boat in life, or taken the wrong boat. It’s our job to help them delve into their own treasure trove of unlived possibilities, explore the untracked wilds of the selves they didn’t become in order that they might, paradoxically, begin to discover what it is that they might become. But what happens when successful, established therapists find themselves feeling somehow dissatisfied by the same old, same old? How do they respond when they hear in their spirits what editor Marian Sandmaier calls “the soft tap that comes at their own door,” beckoning them to a different kind of life?

In this issue, three therapists tell us what it’s like to get up and open that door wide, instead of having the good sense to ignore the call and get on with business as usual. Therapist Ken Sharp, at 49, leaves his comfortable perch as a private practitioner to leap into the maelstrom of a big-city mental-health crisis center. Lynn Bruner leaves interesting, steady work in an exhilarating, culturally rich city for uncertain employment deep in the rural outback of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains. Patrick Dougherty takes a more inward journey. As a stressed-out, hyperrational, psychodynamic therapist, he becomes a committed student of a qigong master, which fundamentally transforms his life in ways he could never have imagined.

What all three of these storytellers have in common is their ability to heed an inner voice, abandon the security of old routines, and take chances on what might well turn out to be a foolish bet. Turning our lives around forces us to make hard choices between conflicting but deeply entrenched human desires–between security and familiarity (which may come with a side dish of deep boredom) and intensity, passion, and joy (which can yield fear, failure, and disappointment). In a sense, we’re always telling our clients to do what these three did: take a chance, trust yourself, try something new. But when we’re so free with this advice, it’s easy to forget just how much courage and effort it takes to follow through on it.

Rich Simon

Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.