Being unemployed is a journey full of extreme highs and lows. One moment, you feel empowered and inspired, and then suddenly you’re panicked, blaming yourself for not being better, smarter, more-skilled, etc. In the blink of an eye, I could dismantle my entire person: I wasn’t eloquent enough, hardworking enough, serious enough, professional enough, pretty enough (it’s funny how that insecurity always rears its ugly head at times like this), or just plain old good enough. And part of the problem was that I had an infinite amount of time to wallow in my own despair, and having too much time on your hands is never great—idle hands and whatnot. My apartment has never been this clean though, so I’ll take that as a win. Anyway, I couldn’t have fathomed being in this position, and because of that I wasn’t prepared for the emotional torment I was oh-so-graciously going to inflict upon myself over the course of my first several weeks of “freedom”.
The thing is, unemployment is this bizarre cross between feeling like you have nothing and then realizing you have every opportunity, so why the hell are you wasting all your damn time? And what are all of these opportunities anyway? Simply job opportunities, of course. Obviously, I need an income. I’ve grown pretty accustomed to paying my bills and providing a mildly lavish lifestyle for my dog, Jameson, who’s allergic to grain and can be pretty particular about his bow ties. But, outside of needing an income, I needed a job because, truthfully, I felt like nothing without one. And that’s where my dilemma began, at the place where I realized the entirety of my self-worth was entangled in something as simple as a job. I never really considered what I might do without a job, or what I really wanted. What am I passionate about? What really matters to me? You see, I worked so often and put too much thought and effort into my work that I stopped looking at myself, and this lack of introspection kept me focused on everything except me.
So why do we do this? Why do we allow our jobs, or how much money we make, or how “well” we’ve done for ourselves, define who we are? And even worse, define who we think others are as well? Our careers and financial successes have become the measuring stick used to determine our value and worth. On top of that, thanks to social media, we share this limited insight into our lives with only what we want people to see. Posting a vacation pic ultimately says, “Hey! Look at me! I do so well for myself that I can afford a week-long trip to Tulum!” And this perception can be so deceiving and dishonest, and not only are we burdened by the pressures of society to follow the gilded path to happiness, but we’ve now, subconsciously, begun pressuring each other. If it’s not on Instagram or Facebook is it even real? “Do it for the ‘gram” is an actual phrase, inciting our need to make our lives look better—happier—on the outside, but what about the inside?
Whether I’m at a bar catching up with old friends or meeting new ones, everyone wants to know about your employment; If you’re still at the same job, new job, happy at your job, looking for work, all of it. “What do you do?” is one of the first questions we ask. Why? And if you’re not working then the answer is, of course, nothing. Isn’t that bleak? That what we do, the summation of our lives, is defined by whether or not we’re employed. My friends and I talked about our work more than we were actually working, and now that I don’t have much to bring to the table in that department, I feel disconnected. It’s difficult to understand the urgency in their voices as they complain about their company or boss or co-worker now that I’ve been set free from those frustrations. And even though I’ve been set free, a part of me still longs for those familiarities. It’s like the train to happiness and fulfillment is leaving the station with everyone I love on board and I’m stuck on the platform, waving goodbye.
What’s even more unsettling is meeting new people. There’s no better way to instill a lasting impression than by telling someone you barely know that you aren’t working and haven’t been working for a while. Gasp. Want to shock them more? Tell them you’re traveling for a couple months in the search for different opportunities. Double gasp. The reactions are pretty telling, and, initially, enforced feelings of failure and loneliness. But this discomfort in unemployment afforded me a new perspective: I must see myself outside of a job, outside of the distractions and labels of what people think I am, or what I want people to think I am. What do I value? What do you value? When you meet someone, ask them about what they love and what they desire and what makes them uncomfortable and what makes them feel alive. We are more than our jobs.
Sometimes this journey feels like I’ve taken the blindfold off (Bird Box plug) and I’m seeing my peers, and society, and community, and the world in an entirely different light. Sometimes it feels like a reckless mistake and a huge waste of time and energy. And that’s okay. It’s okay that I’m questioning myself and my decisions because, at the very least, it’s a reminder of why I’m doing this—why I’m seeking all of the things I’ve been too afraid to risk going off the gilded path.