The first day of my unemployment, I met with the career counselor my former employer had provided. Our purpose now, she told our group, was to make getting a full-time job our full-time job. What I couldn’t explain to her in front of the others was that I had long seen my true job as doing the will of my Higher Power. There’s a still, small voice inside me that, when I listen, instructs me in all things, including employment. Listening to this inner teacher and following its guidance had been working for me for years. I’d been given many wonderful work opportunities and was just as willing to listen as ever. Surely, I told myself, another great job would soon fall into my lap. Unfortunately, this time things didn’t work that way.
I did get some short-term freelance projects. But by last November, even those had dried up. Night after night I startled awake, in terror about the lack of a steady paycheck. My husband and I pored over our finances, and he reassured me that we could keep going for at least another year on our savings and his income. But with our middle son in his first semester of college, and the youngest one starting in four years (the eldest had just graduated from college and was back home, also looking for work), the pressure was on. Even without college tuitions to consider, my work had been filling half the family coffers for nearly a decade.
In addition to the financial fears, the big, bad, blue mood that hit me brought with it an alarming revelation—I didn’t know who I was without a regular job. I felt like a nobody. For the next few months, I made myself face my deepest demons and meanest self-saboteurs—all the things my former job had disguised with its predictable routines and steady paycheck.
The loneliest part of this time was how far away from God I felt. In my long, arduous faith journey, I had just begun to feel that I truly mattered to God. But when the regular paycheck disappeared, I got a stark look at the flaws in my faith, which, it turned out, was fraught with distrust. For the past 15 years I had immersed myself in an eclectic spirituality. I belonged to a peer-support group whose core belief is that sanity and health come from turning our wills and our lives over to the care of God as we each understand God—totally and regularly. This practice, I believed, would ensure that all my needs would be taken care of. My life had gotten infinitely calmer as I lived by this notion. But it was far easier to follow when I had a good job. Jobless, I had not only fear of poverty, but fear of never having a clear role in the world.
I was so confused. I believe every single person on this earth is here for a purpose. But in the depths of my mid-life identity crisis, I couldn’t begin to understand what mine was. This is a little bit embarrassing to admit, because it sounds so grandiose, but the truth is, I have always felt God had a special purpose for me, something that would leave a legacy. It was my job, I thought, to sort out what this was supposed to be. I knew that God would tell me in a still, small voice, and that to hear the message, I had to get very quiet on regular basis. But the chatterbox in my brain—the one screaming, “Danger! Danger! Do something, anything!” made this very difficult.
As often as I could, I made myself stand still and let my angry and hurt feelings wash over me. As an antidote to the fear, I listed and counted my blessings—even when I felt unblessed. And I rallied my support system. Over the years, I have made many friends to whom I can turn for wisdom and counsel. I made at least a phone call a day to one of them—rotating my calls so I wouldn’t burn any one of them out with what often turned out to be ranting or whining. I went to at least one meeting a week of my support group. My path has, in the last four years, involved a more formal religious fellowship; in that time I’ve missed only a handful of Sundays. I’ve learned that I must pay attention to my body, so I swim, do Tai Chi and yoga, and walk—ideally once day. My shelves are filled with books I also considered good friends, among them Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You, Shakti Gawain’s Living in the Light and Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance.
Month in, month out, I kept plugging away, showing up, trying not to hash over the past nor lose myself in worries about the future. Staying in the moment this way, I had learned (from some of those wise friends!) was the only thing that quelled my fretfulness.
Then came a turning point. I was unexpectedly blessed with three glorious hours of solitude in my house. (With five of us here on topsy-turvy schedule, there is almost always someone else around.) I gave myself the gift of an extra cup of coffee, some Tai Chi breathing and meditation, and as long as I needed to write in my journal. I took as a starting point a line from the day’s reading of Simple Abundance, “If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?”
Now, over the years I’ve developed a little trick in my journal that might seem a bit weird but really works for me. I believe that we all have a source of great wisdom deep inside ourselves; it’s the voice I strive to hear when I try to get quiet. And when I write in my journal, I ask questions of this source, then just put my pen back on the paper and let the answers come. I think of this as a way to have a dialogue with my Higher Power. That morning, for the umpteenth time, I wrote, “What is my right work?”
This time, those basic words got through to me. I saw that I do have a job to do, a role to play, and that for now anyway, my work is much bigger and more subtle than commuting to an office and collecting a steady paycheck. And, for the first time in my life, I was deeply confident that I would be taken care of, that I was safe, that all I had to do was face each day and do the best I can and the rest would take care of itself.
The two-year anniversary of the layoff is on the horizon, and I still don’t have a so-called real job. I’m still bumping along from interview to interview and project to project. I still worry about money sometimes. But somehow the bills are getting paid and I’m not popping awake at night in fear. And I’m stronger for having faced my demons: I’ve had to become more flexible and adaptable, more accepting of each day as it comes.
These days, I’m no longer thinking about a job as a sort of garment to put on every morning so I can face the world. Now I see that my real work is much more about who I am, wherever I am, whoever I’m with, than what I do from nine to five. I remember to count among my important work all the help I give to newcomers in my peer-support group. I look for opportunities to smile and say an extra-kind hello—to the gas station attendant, the grocery store clerk, the neighbor passing by.
I’ve (mostly) stopped yelling at God to serve up my right work as if he were a slow waiter and I a demanding customer. Sure, I sometimes still long for clarity—a solid, clear sense of obvious purpose and mission that the world values, or at least a regular routine that I don’t have to create on my own. But the angst of the last few months is mostly gone, leaving behind a gift: I have become more patient, more sensitive and kind, to others and to myself. And I have come to understand that if I focus on making a life, making a living takes care of itself.