On a moonlit night in July 2004, William Maddux left his home in Fond du Lac, Wis., and headed for New York City. Led by his dream to become a published author, Maddux didn't board a plane, take a bus or drive a car. Instead, his mode of transportation came in two forms: his intuition and his two feet.
It was the beginning of what Maddux, now 36, calls a bold experiment. In his words: "I left my place and job, abandoned my car and gave away all of my money."
Maddux tells his story as we sit at a local IHOP. He looks like the all-American man next door, with his 6-foot-2-inch frame, clean-shaven face, cleft chin, piercing blue eyes and bright white smile. With dishes rattling and servers bustling in the background, Maddux takes me back to a Midwest summer, circa 2004. Maddux was in a failing marriage and job that didn't have a future.
"I wanted a new life. I wanted to start over. I was tired of going through the same old circles, the same old routine," he recalls.
So Maddux set out on foot to New York, where he hoped to become a published author. After New York, he then traveled to Florida, back to Wisconsin and then to Iowa. He took a two-year break and continued to Tucson, then Indianapolis, Iowa City, Sedona, Santa Barbara, Calif., and back to Tucson, in May 2008. While he took buses and accepted some rides, he walked many miles, including a 95-mile stretch in Florida from Jacksonville to Daytona Beach.
Maddux lived in shelters and missions and followed his intuition to find food and safety. At times, complete strangers opened their homes to him, such as Big John in Altoona, Pa., and two families in Madison, Wis.
Besides experiencing the generosity of others—"Everybody has some goodness in them," he says—Maddux learned an important lesson that he is writing a book about: It is a privilege to be poor.
While it may seem like a strange concept at first, Maddux explains his philosophy and makes a thought-provoking point. "When you have no money, you still have needs. The concept is based on the fact that you need to find a way to meet those needs. The privilege is in order to meet what you need, you have to look within rather than look (outside of yourself).
"Our society teaches us we are based mainly on what we have. But if circumstances ever take what you have away, then society says if you have nothing; you are worth nothing. I'm trying to see that we're not just worth what we have outside of ourselves. Our worth depends also on what is inside—talents, dreams and skills."
When I ask Maddux if he thinks we can learn this concept while having money, he laughs and says yes, but suggests that it might be more difficult.
"Our society is so wrapped up in its beliefs about money; it may be more difficult to find these qualities in having money. ... You don't need to give up your place to stay and go to that extreme. But (after) not having a job for one to two months and having your savings dwindle down to nothing, you are forced to be more creative on how to meet your needs. As you find creative ways, you are going to find something within yourself that you might not have found in other circumstances."
Maddux seems like a pro in finding the positive in life's situations. He says that he is "just as happy with a lot of money or no money."
Today, he enjoys his job at a nursery. "It's inspirational. I get to be with people, plants and cats. The first thing in the morning before anybody shows up, I get to see birds flying in the nursery. ... It's such a peaceful atmosphere."
This seemingly gentle man who finds beauty in seeing a bird fly and rejoices over the generosity of others says his number one goal in life is to touch people's lives and cause smiles. He says he's literally given the shirt off his back to homeless men, has bought meals for others and has recited his poetry hundreds of times as gifts for others. (See below for "The Purpose in Our Lives.") He wants to inspire people to help others.
In this time of financial adversity, Maddux's ideas may appear simplistic at first. But I find value in his words. Why not look within ourselves for worth, instead of just looking at our checkbooks?
The Purpose in Our Lives
by William Maddux
In the end when all is said and done,
It does not matter
How many races, games, and toys that we have won
Nor money that we have earned.
What matters most
Is what is found inside.
Is there love, kindness, and wisdom
Or does anger, envy, and bitterness
Still control our lives?
Life is a journey
That we should take
To learn the lessons
From our mistakes.
Will we learn to overcome pain and strife
To find the power of love in our life?
There are so many reasons that we live for,
Money, power, and esteem for sure.
We fight so hard for ourselves.
Yet, if we do not see these errors in our ways,
These things that we strive for
Will blind us all the way to the grave.
In the end all that matters,
Are the lives that we have touched
And the smiles that we have caused.
In the end, there will be only love.