I met Shawn Smucker through a site we both write for called A Deeper Church. He is an excellent, prolific writer with a great head on his shoulders–and an obvious quest for adventure. When I heard bits and pieces about the epic road trip he went on with his family, I was hooked (when I was 8, my family sold everything and traveled the world in a motor home as well–and look, Shawn, I turned out excellent!). Shawn wrote a great piece that will be going up on Thursday, but I thought it might be fun to ask him a few questions about his life. So here we go!
Here’s his bio: Shawn is the author of “Building a Life Out of Words,” the story of how he lost his business, his house and his community, then found happiness making a living as a writer. He lives deep in the woods of southern Lancaster County, PA, with his wife and four children. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter. Be sure to check out Shawn’s books How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp and Building a Life Out of Words.
DL: Tell me about your family, and this epic journey you guys went on.
SS: First let me tell you that my wife, my four children and I have been on an exhilarating, terrifying journey over the last four years. My business crumbled, we left a community that we loved, and I began writing for a living – I wrote about this in my book “Building a Life Out of Words.” We lived in my parents’ basement more often than I would have liked, but we now live in our dream house, rent free (long story). We’ve made more money in one month than I ever thought I’d make, and we’ve gone six months without income. My sense of calling has never been clearer, and most of the time I feel like I am living a dream life. But there’s also a huge sense of the unknown, a constant cycle of being called to faith and belief and trust. Some days I look around me and wish I had a normal life: a paycheck, a mortgage and a car payment (in order to replace our two minivans that have a combined 400,000 miles). But I know that those yearnings are for temporary things, things that represent comfort, predictability and control. So my wife and I continue making a conscious decision to pass on those things and accept the gifts we’ve been given from God, gifts we never would have received if we had lived our life under our own control.
Pretty early in on we realized that the advantages of living a counter-cultural life is that you don’t have to wait to have adventures. You don’t have to work for forty years and then live the life you always wanted to live, the life God is trying to birth in you. So, when the lease on the house we were renting ran out, we borrowed my uncle’s RV and hit the road for four months. Actually, the RV was an old bus that used to be Willie Nelson’s. I compiled my blog posts, my wife’s blog posts, and a few essays I wrote into a book about the trip and titled it “How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp.”
What I love about my family is their willingness to go on adventures, to follow God’s voice, to live a life that doesn’t make sense to most people. We home school our kids (ages 10, 8, 5 and 4) not because we want to protect them, but because it gives us the flexibility to follow. I don’t know too many women that have my wife’s willingness to live a life without the usual safety nets – she is constantly surprising me.
I grew up going to the same school for twelve years, lived in basically two houses my entire childhood, so sometimes I worry about this transient life we’re giving my children. But they surprise me with their adaptability, the way they form new friendships so quickly, the way they are always challenging me to be a better person, a more loving person. So, again, I have to trust God with their lives and believe that he can make something beautiful with the childhood they’re experiencing as a result of their parents’ choices.
DL: How did this trip make you feel about happiness/the American dream?
SS: I see a lot of my friends, the way they live these “quiet lives of desperation,” and I get pretty unsettled, angry, at the so-called “American Dream,” the way so many in our generation have swallowed the lie of materialism. It saddens me that we believe more money will make us happy, that the only way to security is through traditional employment, and how we so often refuse to live the life we’ve been called to live because we won’t give up the nice things we’ve accumulated. So much purpose and adventure dying on the vine.
DL: Did it change your definition of what a good life was?
SS: The trip, and returning from the trip to the hardest six months of my life, solidified for me that my best life is not one that I’ve controlled and planned out. Being “responsible,” as defined by our current culture, cannot be the litmus test for the major decisions I make in life. I just don’t think that the majority of what Jesus told people to do was very responsible.
“Follow me,” Jesus said. So we try to follow. We screw up all the time, of course, but we keep trying to follow.
DL: How have you interacted with people who come from a different economic situation from you?
SS: Going without income for stretches of time has helped me to identify with the poor. I’m not saying I’m poor or have ever had to live in poverty, but when you’re in a position of not having money for groceries, or you live in a one-bedroom basement, or you have bills you haven’t been able to pay for six months, it opens your eyes. But learning about poverty and learning how to love those who are poor, and love them well, has been a series of concentric circles.
First you learn how to sacrifice the stuff you want in order to help others, and you think, this is it, this is what Jesus was talking about. Then you start getting involved in the lives of the poor and you start trying to help them make positive steps – you try to rescue them from their poverty and you think, Oh, wow, actually THIS is what Jesus was talking about. I’ve got to get them out of this.
And then you get to the point where you think that nothing you are doing is making a difference in their lives, and you want to give up, but you also have this amazing realization that they don’t need your money or your rescuing – what they need is you. And it’s way harder and more painful but it’s also more loving and more rewarding. You realize that sitting on someone’s porch outside their dilapidated trailer and having a beer with them, just enjoying THAT DAY with them, that’s what Jesus would have done.
So that’s where my wife and I are at right now. But there’s a deeper circle to find and to live, I’m sure. There always is.
Thanks, Shawn! Check back on Thursday for more of his thoughts on Downward Mobility.