In answer to an online question posed by a fellow Christian Dude — something like "Describe a tough time in our life and how you got through it," and in keeping with my usual Facebook habit of allowing my fast fingers to bolt ahead of my brain, I responded with the following mini-rant:
"Right now, in the midst of middle age, unemployed for the first time since college. Doing my best to discern the way forward without panic and with the deep love of my family and friends. I'm not pushing it, but the uncertainty and nagging self-flagellation that I'm a loser failure is definitely a challenge. So I'll get up tomorrow and keep fighting the fear with God's help."
So, there's the story in a nutshell: In August, after nearly 40 years of pretty much non-stop employment — interrupted by college and a few years of business ownership, which I suppose is still "employment" though I was the last to get paid — I found myself on the outside of the workforce looking in. It wasn't a surprise. I'd known since May that the magazine I'd helped found back in 1997 and shepherded through several highs and lows — ownership changes, expensive growth, economic collapse, faulty decision-making and finger-crossing faith — was shutting down. Our latest owner was calling it quits, and rightly so in all-American profit-or-else terms. We were losing money, as are so many magazines these days.
I was out, and I wasn't sure how to feel about it, what with two daughters still at home and a patient, supportive spouse telling me it was cool with her that I took some time to recalibrate, discern, breathe and pray. At first I felt freed, but it wasn't the kind of freedom most working men experience after they lose a "normal" gig involving an office or a job site, a commute, a fellow crew. I had worked at home for going on five years, and before that, in a small office with only one other onsite employee for the better part of six years: My wife. So, I was still at home, staring at the same computer screen and fighting the urge to sit there and work, any kind of word work — which is my stock-in-trade — without pay.
I was supposed to get out, enjoy life, take advantage of the time off. And I did, to a point, in between odd jobs with a local caterer. But after just a few weeks, I got antsy. My guilt-fueled guy psyche kicked in. The 3 a.m. terrors blew through my mind: "You suck. You're not contributing. You've failed yourself and your family, and you don't seem to give a damn. You're useless."
Not fair, I know. Certainly not true. But in modern, first-world men's culture, especially American men's culture, not having a job and supporting your family is pretty much a fate worse than death. And it doesn't help when you let folks know what's going on, which sets in motion a cycle of, "So, how's the job search going?" followed by my replies of "Well, I'm not rushing into things" or "I've got a few feelers out," when I'd rather say, "I'm not what I do, dammit! My job doesn't define me. So give me a break!" It's not their fault; what else are they supposed to say? At any rate, it gets old.
So you'd think I'd have fired myself up, hit the bricks and ferreted out a new job, any job, within a few days. Instead, I stewed with self-hate even as I updated my résumé, signed up for online job seeking sites, send out halfhearted queries to a handful of magazine editors (with zero response) and generally gave it the ol' college try. I put the word out on Facebook that I was looking for the next challenge, and got dozens of thumbs-up and plenty of go-get-'em optimism. I was thankful to have so many friends looking after me, but at the same time, at age 54 and staring at a huge, smoking hole of professional doubt, I couldn't shake the feeling — no doubt stoked by what my good friend Todd calls "the snake" — that it was all lip service, and moving forward was, in the end, all up to me. I couldn't count on people, because they really don't care. A few folks from church said they'd help any way they could, but how? They've got their own problems, right? They're busy! And as for the hundreds of contacts I had through my old job, many of them just dropped out of sight, moved on. After all I'd done for them! I thought they cared about me!
What a venal and self-absorbed chump I was becoming. And I'd only been out of work a few weeks, for God's sake.
Snap out of it, man!
So fought the negativity with trips to the gym, hikes in the mountains, rounds of golf with my buddies, fireside chats with Todd and other friends, and puttering around the house. I did my best to engage with my bride, our two teenage daughters. I babysat my year-old grandson, which couldn't help but lift the fog of self-doubt.
I kept busy. And it all worked to a point. But then comes 3 a.m. again, and the snake coils around my heart in the darkness, telling me I'm no good. A few weeks ago, that darkness nearly swallowed me whole as I awoke in tears, feeling close to suicidal. I was an abject failure. My wife awoke and talked me through it. Then, the very next night, as Todd and I attended a Lutheran Men in Mission visioning weekend in Chicago, he listened to my tale of woe yet again and laid on me his simple wisdom, born of his years in recovery: "One day at a time. One good thing at a time. You're a good man and God loves you. No matter what you do, he won't leave you."
Damn that Todd. He got me again, pulled me back from the brink, and set me up for a productive weekend with a bunch of fellow Lutheran seekers, guys who didn't really care what I did for a living, only that I lived alongside them, in grace, and that, indeed, God was working through them. He didn't need my résumé to accept me. He knew my name before I was born.
I find myself thinking of that verse at the very center of the Bible, Psalm 118:8.
"It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man."
Indeed. I believe that. But I also believe that God works his grace through man. Through my fellow men. That's our true job as Christians, to love each other and get past the earthly bounds of job and career and station and see each other for who we are in His eyes, right?
Yeah, I'm going with that.
So, here I am, still out of work, but not entirely. I'm up and running as a consultant for a local non-profit here in Reno, my hometown — I feel myself drawn to the non-profit world these days — and working on some freelance writing projects. And I'm feeling better, though the snake still lurks.
I'm a dude, and I abide in Jesus. Perhaps I'll put that on my résumé.
Vic Williams attends Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, Nevada, with his wife and two daughters.