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Finding Balance

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Suzan Cook

My older son wants to be an orthopedic surgeon. He just completed his undergraduate education and now has eight more years of medical school ahead of him. But before then, he told me, he plans to take a "gap year" so he can have some time off.

His plan struck me as brilliant. It also made me think about how uncomfortable we, as Americans, are with taking professional breaks.

I've been a public servant for most of my life. In 2011 President Obama appointed me as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. I am the first woman and the first African-American to be named to the post. I loved my job; I was doing important, exhilarating work visiting countries like China and Saudi Arabia to meet with their leaders and promote religious liberties for all. But I was exhausted. Throughout my 42-year career, I had never considered a real pause from work.

Informally I polled my colleagues, other senior-level officers, who shared similar stories of jet lag, fatigue and swollen, blood-clotted legs from hundreds of hours of work-related travel. In just two years I had made 28 diplomatic trips around the world. And because that wasn't enough, I'd added to my already-too-full workload by managing our family business, a security agency in New York City. I'd given countless presentations on the importance of balancing your life, but I wasn't heeding my own advice.

So after much prayer and deep thought, I resigned. I'd saved up six months' worth of living expenses—rent, bills, expendable cash and my sons' tuition—and at the age of 56, I left my job. I set out to rest, decompress and reconnect with friends and family.

The first thing I did was go on a cruise to the Bahamas. I love water, sunshine and good food, and it was just what I needed to reboot. Once I got back home, I refused to do anything I didn't want to do. Alarm clocks and schedules were banned. I took spa days and started going to the gym. I cut back on red meat and splurged on the healthier foods I craved. I communed with and prayed to God in ways that I'd been too tired to before. This past Christmas was the first in decades that I wasn't either conducting worship services or preparing for a diplomatic trip. My family and I had the best time ever—we giggled, drank eggnog, opened gifts and enjoyed one another's company. I was home again.

By the fourth month of my break, I felt closer to the woman I'm striving to become. When my fifty-seventh birthday rolled around, I celebrated myself, reflected on my journey and decided that it was time to start working toward the next phase in my professional life.

My color has returned. My body, mind and spirit are in top shape. Speaking engagements and writing assignments are back and lucrative. My older son's final college tuition payment was made, and my finances are still in order. The world didn't stop because I took time off. I just needed to reenter it on my own terms and in my own time. This next chapter is where my new life meets my new lifestyle.

This article was featured in the June 2014 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now.

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