You know that feeling after a death or a breakup, when you wake up in the morning and there are a few seconds, maybe a whole minute before you remember that the universe is different?
Last week, my husband lost his job. It wasn’t his fault, he didn’t do anything wrong, and his former employer really didn’t do anything wrong. It just had to be over.
I’ve woken up to that sweet, brief amnesia, followed by hours and hours of desperate, panicked spinning and an elaborate vision of exactly how bad life is going to be now. I decided, immediately, that we would soon lose our house, live in a box, take our animals to the Humane Society and subsist on handouts and food scraps. I still have a job, and my husband can collect unemployment and take short-term jobs while we search, but that was cold comfort.
Our household has run on his income, and my little job has been money for “extras” like Christmas gifts, an overnight trip or a new washing machine. We have never been in a position to sock away the recommended three months of expenses to cover an emergency, and we didn’t.
My guilt about that, and about the fact that I ever spent any money on anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary, is crippling. I can know intellectually that people have to live their lives, and that I was actually incredibly frugal, but I keep looking at things like the mascara I bought two days before The Bad Thing Happened and thinking “I don’t need that, why did I spend money on that, I am a profligate, irresponsible, silly woman.”
I think that a lot. I am an optimist by training and practice, but a pessimist by nature. When all hell breaks loose, when I am falling down a cliff and there are no clear places to grab on, I revert easily to the dark, catastrophic mindset that’s my factory setting.
This is a huge test of the Buddhist principles by which I claim to run my life. Everything changes constantly, clinging leads to suffering, it profits no one to ruminate about the past or panic about an unknown future. What matters, what will save us here is doing the next thing with good will and determination─making human connections, getting the word out, having a great resume and circulating it widely. I know that stuff. It’s just very difficult, let’s say almost impossible for me to overcome my gut-wrenching terror and keep moving forward to a new job, probably a better job, and a time when we’ll look back on this and wonder how we ever doubted.
There isn’t much, frankly, that helps right now.But there are things that get me off the ledge long enough to look past the immediate and threatening walls of loss and doom. First, my husband says “it’s going to be okay.” I have to believe him. Not in a way that lets me check out and leave it all to him, but in a way that reminds me that he’s always worked, he has a great resume, and he is a professional salesman. Selling himself, his charm, his drive, his understanding of human and institutional dynamics is something he can do. I need to trust that, and keep hustling.
There was also a recent article on Elephant Journal about job loss, and change. The author did not write about the end of the world, she wrote about the opening up of opportunity, a chance to find a better fit. I want that for my husband; I love the work I do, and when he has work that he loves, he shines.
She also told me (because, in that moment, I believed that she was speaking only to me) to sweat, to maintain a routine, to do some new things and to breathe.
I realized, as I read, that I had not taken a deep breath (or meditated or done yoga or eaten a nutritious meal or taken a shower or done anything remotely normal) since The Bad Thing. It’s tough, because I really just want to spend every waking moment on the job search, but now I have this counter-message in my head that says “stop, breathe, stretch, have a little soup and call a friend.” To use the clichest of clichés, I need to put my own oxygen mask on first.
Finally, there is this book we’re using, written by a friend from another writing site. It’s a very non-traditional way of looking at finding work, and we work through it together, my husband and I, having really useful and interesting conversations about everything from telling the story that you can’t tell in a resume to talking about past employers without blame.
Today, we read a section in which the author described “The Stockdale Paradox.” As a prisoner of war, Admiral James Stockdale survived by focusing simultaneously on two thoughts:
- I am in a prison camp and it is horrible.
- I will get out of here.
This was radical and freeing for me; if I’d had tears left I would have cried (some more). I realized that I was thinking only about being stuck in a bad situation, and not even poking at the notion of salvation with a long, long stick. It wasn’t “positive thinking” bullshit, but a practical, productive way to harmonize the harsh reality and the knowledge that it would end. I can’t, after all believe that everything changes all the time and also believe that only good things end.
So I’m still struggling here, trying to breathe, to stay focused on the task at hand and (hardest of all) to keep my fear from paralyzing me so that I am truly as useless as I feel.
I say things to myself like “at least you have your health” and try to laugh.
We are in this prison, but we will get out. Until then, we keep breathing.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Bill Selak on Flickr