Editor’s Note: See Jane Write now publishes articles and personal essays by writers who identify as women, non-binary folks, and our allies. Learn more here.
by Kecia L. Lightner
“Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be.” James Baldwin radically made this declaration in 1960 at the third annual Esquire Magazine symposium, later to be included in his essay collection, Nobody Knows My Name. Little did I know how this quote would resonate with me so succinctly on the day I unexpectedly walked away from a 21-year career.
I am not a quiet quitter but for several years I was OVER MY JOB! Over a job that absorbed my time and energy without fulfillment. Over complaining to friends and family members about one frustrating moment that seemed to grow into yet another frustrating moment, like a dampened Mogwai-turned gremlin. Over no longer loving my job. Until a co-worker’s retirement announcement offered the perfect opportunity to pivot from an old, worn-out version of myself into a shiny, new one. I’m not sure exactly when I noticed that I had reached the end of my professional growth, doing the same routine day in, day out but I. WAS. DONE! I needed a new spark to fuel my passion for what I was doing at that time.
Even if my flame was reduced to a small flicker, it wouldn’t be bragging to say that I was a reliable and valuable asset. It was recognized that I gave nothing less than my best to ensure that work assignments were handled thoroughly, timely and efficiently. So the promotion came at a perfect time to engage with the organization in new and exciting ways, while also gaining leadership experience. In other words, I had a chance to level up and I was ready!
Although there was not any concern in my abilities to transfer the same skills, excellence and dedication to the duties in my new position, having the support from my supervisor and former colleague was important to me as I looked forward to embracing this new challenge. There would undoubtedly be more responsibilities and knowledge required but I knew I had a strong work foundation and desire to succeed to match. “I’ve got this!” was not my mantra, it was my attitude. There was a lot to learn, with a small window of one-on-one training with the incumbent but soon-to-be-retired administrator. Despite time not being on our side, we both felt assured that when the effective date arrived, I would move into my new position confident, well-trained and ready for my new paradise.
Unfortunately, that confidence lasted for less than a week before the same supervisor, who initially seemed willing to cultivate a healthy work atmosphere, rooted in support and guidance, revealed himself to be unyielding and hostile. I was blindsided by the announcement that I was unrealistically expected to remain handcuffed to the high demands and duties of my former job–past the effective date of my new position–while simultaneously trying to carve out meager slices of time for training in my new job! To say his 180-degree shift felt like sabotage, with my failure as the objective, was an understatement. For several weeks, I was too tired to lean into my “I’ve got this!” attitude. Rather, I endured a repeated cycle of decreased energy, deeper frustration, feeling manipulated and undervalued as a human first and employee second, without any possible relief. Constant interruptions made it difficult to focus and fear that my work performance would decline was not just paranoia. Juggling the busy schedule of my old job and a fast-paced training schedule resulted in delays completing my work assignments.
Luckily, staying extra late or working on weekends prevented any negative consequences but two things became clear as rain: First, despite voicing my concerns that this decision would negatively impact my mental and physical well-being—not to mention how my work standard would decline—my supervisor was not receptive to listening or reconsidering. Second, because of my struggle to be heard, I was less than hopeful that the breakdown in communication between us at that time would improve in the future. Both of these truths were unacceptable and I could not justify choosing to fight more for a job than for myself. Disappointingly, the promotion that held promise of renewed purpose spawned from Gizmo to Spike proportions, leaving me with no other choice but to drop the mic and quit…LOUDLY!
I’m taking my freedom
The final decision to leave my job a few weeks after accepting a promotion was not an easy one, unless you consider desperate prayers and angry crying easy. Harder than leaving, however, was staying in the confines of a hostile environment that was unable to restore the balance of personal and professional respect. Having an impressive job title or money in exchange for allowing someone to lower my worthiness was out of character for me. So on that fateful day, calmness wrapped around me with the warmth of a cashmere blanket as I turned in my badges and laptop. I was not fearful of what my future would look like without the comforts of consistent income. Nor was I afraid to step out on my mustard seed-sized faith. Much to my surprise, it was almost as if I was the lightest feather, floating, instead of walking, to my car. I had taken my freedom but was not prepared for how liberating I would feel afterward.
Words almost fail any attempt to describe such a feeling as that but if I had to choose one word the closest is well…FREE! That “free” feeling was far greater than simply being away from the temporary obligations of work. By the time I was inside my car, gratefulness had replaced the anger that darkened those previous weeks. I realized that all the things that predated that moment, all the negative words spoken throughout the experience, were not done to me but for me. So this was not a time for lamentations; only excitement and acceptance about beginning a new chapter that I had not expected but welcomed.
As I drove away physically, but also emotionally, I did not look back one last time. Instead, I drove looking forward, increasing the distance from the old and decreasing the distance toward the new; my new growth if you will. By new growth, I am not referring to the new growth of curly gray hairs that I am now embracing since I have extra time to really look at the image that is reflected in my mirror. Rather, the new growth is the personal and creative growth that freedom from working has given me and that I am blessed to explore, all on my own terms.
The responsibility to honor and value myself is my job now. I am using this time to shift my focus to being more protective of my energy and not allowing anything to hijack it. Now, I am open to looking for my purpose each day with child-like excitement. Instead of the usual drive-by prayers I hurriedly recited on my way to work, now, I dedicate time every morning–and throughout the day–to have moments of stillness and thankfulness. Above all, I am as free as I want to be without restraints!
Freedom Taken. Now what?
Living intentionally with a “now or never” tenacity was not an affirmation I can honestly say I was committed to before. Now, I cherish my time as an opportunity to work as intensely–and extensively–for my dreams as I worked for my previous employer. Not to do so would make it harder for me to believe that I am worthy of receiving the very best. This is the best time for me to express my creativity without being trapped by self-limiting beliefs or behavior. Otherwise, I will fail to share with others the authentic version of myself that is as necessary as my breath. Thanks to the mentorship of Audrey McDonald Atkins and others, part of that authenticity is through my passion for creative writing, which they have helped to reignite. Their encouragement, along with the camaraderie of the See Jane Write Collective, gives me a writing community of continuous motivation and bravery so that I now confidently proclaim that, “I am a writer who writes.” My commitment to writing has been consistent, which would not have been possible if I were working. In fact, less than three months after separating from the workplace, I accomplished my long-term goal to become a guest writer for Hallmark Mahogany.com!
I realize that for many, quitting a long career–without a backup plan–may seem risky and frightening. It is! But to be your greatest defender or loudest cheerleader is always worth the risk, yielding great rewards. So moving forward, I will always bet on myself.
It’s been more than three months now and regret has not visited me once because I trust that God will always provide in His timing and He will never fail me. Every day, I remind myself to enjoy how special this journey is instead of stressing over the arrival date to my next destination.
Although the circumstances that caused me to walk away from my job were unfortunate, they were a necessary catalyst. I make space in my life now to rest more physically; re-set personal and professional values and habits that may no longer be beneficial in this new phase of my life; and focus more on my overall wellness, using refreshing mindfulness guides and practices. My days are devoted to re-discovering the joy found in simple pleasures. Having early morning walks in my neighborhood or even sitting on my patio while leisurely sipping a fresh cup of coffee and planning how I want to show up for myself may seem insignificant but having the liberty to slowly accept the gift that each new day offers is a gratitude ritual that I had forgotten to make a priority. Even having free time during any day of the week to finally read the growing pile of magazines–neatly stacked in one corner of my living room– from cover to cover could be unimportant to others but for me is a celebration of an accomplished “work” day.
Although I cannot say today what my employment future will look like, I am certain that when that next door opens, I will walk through it honoring this experience and remembering that freedom to choose myself is not only free but it’s priceless!
Kecia L. Lightner is a poet, essayist, and budding photographer, who is ready to share her words outside the pages of her journals. A proud plant mom and museum nerd, she has been featured as a guest writer on Hallmark Mahogany.com and resides in Alabama.