Whether or not we like to admit it, most of us are creatures of habit. We’re embedded in our daily routines and familiar surroundings, deriving a kind of quiet security from the choices we’ve made–about the work we do, about what we deeply believe, about the kind of difference we want to make in our lives. There’s a sense of shelter, even sanctuary, in this known world.

Yet at times, unbidden, we may hear a soft tapping on the door of our settled lives–a knock that invites us to travel down a different path. Often these invitations are quietly extended, easy to ignore if we so choose. A friend makes an offhand remark about a new class she’s taking: hmmm, that sounds intriguing. Or we hear of a job opportunity that feels, oddly, like a match for us, even though it would throw us up against the limits of our knowledge and experience. Or we may visit a new locale that tugs at us, without our quite knowing why. When the knock comes, many of us listen briefly, and then turn away. Who needs all the upheaval?

In the essays that follow, three therapists tell of the quiet tap that came at their own door–and what happened when they dared to answer. When these writers first said “yes” to the opportunity that lay before them, they had little idea of what was in store. What they did sense was that they’d been invited into a territory that was both fearsome and alluring, a realm that poet John O’Donohue calls “the unlived life.” It’s a region of self that is vital to who we are but has been relegated, thus far, to a box marked “Later.” Or, “Never.”

As these therapists ventured into new realms, each of them encountered the “full catastrophe” of life change–fear, passion, experiences of failure, furious self-doubt, moments of unexpected satisfaction. They also were taken unawares. Each clinician embarked on his or her path in search of a particular “something”–some specific, personal goal that felt necessary to pursue. Each wound up getting something different, and more, than they ever imagined–an opportunity to grow past purely individual concerns to a larger, more connected way of being in the world.

These stories may inspire us to ask ourselves: What lives may still crouch within us, mute and still? If we can learn to listen better to the quiet, recurring invitations that come to each of us, perhaps we’ll start to gently nudge some of those lives awake. We can introduce ourselves to these newly roused possibilities; sit down for a bit of conversation. After that, who knows? One day, we might know the answer to the soul-knocking question put forth by the visionary Buckminster Fuller: “What can I do that isn’t going to get done unless I do it, just because of who I am?”

Marian Sandmaier

Marian Sandmaier is the author of two nonfiction books, Original Kin: The Search for Connection Among Adult Sisters and Brothers (Dutton-Penguin) and The Invisible Alcoholics: Women and Alcohol Abuse in America (McGraw-Hill). She is Features Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and other publications. Sandmaier has discussed her work on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Today Show, and NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Fresh Air.” On several occasions, she has received recognition from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for magazine articles on psychology and behavior. Most recently, she won the 2021 ASJA first-person essay award for her article “Hanging Out with Dick Van Dyke” on her inconvenient attack of shyness while interviewing. You can learn more about her work at www.mariansandmaier.net.