Empathy for the “Unemployed”

Image courtesy of iStockphoto.com

I kind of wanted to write a blog about our crazy experience of being “unemployed” – what it feels like, but I am feeling conflicted.  On one hand, I know I was terrible, in the past, about either saying awkward things, or judging people harshly who went through long periods of unemployment, and I know I would have loved to have read something like this.  On the other hand, it seems narcissistic and whiny to be truthful about our feelings. So if I write this, will you give me some grace as you read it and realize this is just our perspective and I am sharing it to help shine light?  I am really trying not to complain or make this “about us.”  This past year, I have learned many lessons that may help people who have not gone through this understand the feelings of those who are going through it.  So, if you are interested in seeing a glimpse of perspective from the other side, read on.

Lesson One – To be careful how we define a person. I think, before I went through this, that I lumped all unemployed people in one group.  But the reality is more complex.  Justin and I don’t even know what to call ourselves in this time, so we do fully understand other people’s confusion.  We are not technically “unemployed” because the reality is we have been piecing together as many part-time and freelance positions as our bodies and our family can withstand in this time of “unemployment.”  And yet we are somehow also under the umbrella of “unemployment” because we are constantly searching for and applying for fulltime jobs for Justin.  We do not receive “unemployment” from the government because we worked for a church before and churches are exempt from paying into unemployment, therefore church employees are ineligible to receive unemployment (which really is a difficult reality for the thousands of church employees who have been or will be laid off in this recession).  I jokingly call us “underemployed,” but it is rather murky water.

Lesson Two – To be careful about assumptions about someone’s situation. There is so much inflammatory political rhetoric surrounding the unemployed, and it is easy to assume the worst.  Last week I read a quote from a congressional candidate saying that if the government extended unemployment benefits, people would just “sit around.”  I know I once thought that about long-term unemployed people.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am positive there are abusers of the system and there are certainly lazy people.  So there is that reality.  But I don’t know that I will ever assume again that someone’s unemployment benefits are the reason they are not finding another job.  Here’s the truth, Justin does have a fulltime job – with no pay and no benefits.  His job is to look for work.  He sends at least 3 -4 resumes with personalized cover letters out a week.  He is on job search websites for hours almost every evening.  He has had countless interviews and lunch meetings, and flown to two different cities for extended interviews.  He always sends a thank you note after an interview, and at any given time is following up on 3 different possibilities.  Many potential employers have had him arrange music or record demos from here as a part of the interview process.  And he does all of this while working part-time in two different jobs and freelancing as much as possible – often late into the night.  Oh yeah – and he is a dad and husband and helps me care for our home.  Since we were not eligible for unemployment, I don’t really know how much you can receive, but even if it is a decent wage, I just cannot imagine a scenario where someone would choose this.  Looking for work is HARD and compared to this, a fulltime job is CAKE, plus the obvious perks like a paycheck and benefits. 🙂

We have also been the recipients of some other pretty nasty assumptions.  Someone told us we “couldn’t take care of our kids” and that was pretty hurtful.  I know the person didn’t mean to say that – but it exposed what they thought about us and their false assumption about our situation.  Our kids have not lacked anything in this time.  We are not in foreclosure or in debt trouble – our lifestyle is mostly unaffected.  Justin is taking excellent care of our family and I am more proud to be married to him today than I was the day I married him.  We give great credit to the Lord, and we would have never thought things would be so good after 10 months of extended financial challenge, but we are grateful that our kids are not in jeopardy.

And finally, most everyone assumes, like I once did, that there are jobs with benefits easily available “in the meantime.”  We know this because everyone suggests it to us, just as I think I likely suggested it to every unemployed person for the past 5 years.  Here’s the truth – Justin has applied at every Starbucks, Guitar Center, Nordstrom, and Apple Store within an hour of our home.  Most of the time he does not even receive a call back.  He is just far too overqualified.  They look at his resume and know what he is trying to do – make ends meet until he gets a fulltime job.  They don’t want to train an employee they are going to lose in six months.  That leads to the next lesson I’ve learned:

Lesson Three – Unemployment truly is a cycle and a trap. It really is true that if you are unemployed and looking for a job, you are placed at a lower value than someone who is simply looking to transition.  And actually, the opposite is also true when you are doing so many things to stay afloat.  Justin is actually overemployed as well as unemployed.  Here is the line we have heard twice when churches see all of the work Justin is currently doing on his resume:   “You seem to be doing many varied things right now, are you sure you really want to zero in and focus on one fulltime job?”  You wouldn’t think it, but the incredibly hard work Justin is putting in to care for our family is kind of hurting him.  It makes him appear scattered to someone who doesn’t understand this situation.    Justin has had to give the answer, “I want to serve one local church with all of my heart, but for now I must provide for my family” multiple times, and each time it makes me proud and brings tears to my eyes.  I never thought he’d have to defend himself for working so hard.  The system is truly stacked against the unemployed.

Lesson four:  There is a delicate balance between caring and prying. There are many many people praying for us.  We have chosen to be rather transparent about our situation and our job search because we value those prayers and we want to minister out of every situation of our life – even this.  The benefit to our transparency is that we are blown away by the family the Lord has given us this year.  The downside is, our situation is public.  Most people, when they see us, briefly say “How’s the job hunt going?”  We do not mind answering, because we cannot overstate the value to us of people’s care, and people’s prayers.  But there are some days where even explaining that much is exhausting.  When you have seen another week pass, or have fought worry all week, or just watched an amazing door shut and you are hurting, to tell people “Nothing yet, but thank you for praying” is humbling and difficult.  And there are a few people who really pry well beyond where we are comfortable.  Those people also care for us, but we tend to avoid them because we feel like we are having to explain ourselves and justify why we don’t have a fulltime job lined up.  We know they care, but we don’t necessarily want to (or feel we need to) give them a play-by-play of every job and possibility we are seeking.  The truth is that we live this reality all day everyday.  We really have thought about and tried for almost everything out there.  Corporate jobs, school jobs, non-profit jobs, church jobs, retail jobs, silly jobs.  All while not being able to ignore the reality that there is a calling the Lord has placed on my husband’s life to be in ministry.  So no job, even if it pays more, can add up to the possibility of a ministry job along the lines of his calling.  So we are constantly working through that and praying through that and trying to walk this path with wisdom.  There are factors in our situation that a casual observer cannot possibly understand in a 5 minute conversation about our situation.  Yet some people seem to expect that explanation.  Some days we are strong enough to handle that, but other days we could not get through that conversation if we tried without breaking down.  So we kind of go “undercover” in avoidance of having to answer.

Lesson Five:  This road is far more difficult than I ever expected. I think this experience will help me hurt with, pray for, and bear the burdens of friends who go after us.  Prayerfully, the lessons I am learning will help me be a “safe person” for my friends who go through this situation in the future.

  • First of all, I have learned the value of prayer. The people who hug me and simply say “We love you and are praying” are the people who bring tears to my eyes.  I want to be that person for someone in the future.  Those people get it.
  • Second, I have learned the healing quality of laughter. The other people who get it are the ones who treat us like we are normal.  So many people approach us with the “unemployment face” and the “are you ok?” head tilt, you know?  Haha I’m sure there is a Seinfeld or Friends reference in there somewhere.  I want, in the future, to treat our friends like they are normal, even when things are difficult for them.  I want them to know that I am here to talk about it and pray if they need me, but otherwise they know I will laugh with them and let them forget their situation if that is what they need.  My friends have struck that balance SO WELL in this time.  Girls (you know who you are) you have been so good at this and I am so thankful for you.  You are the gift from God to my heart in this time.  I have laughed and enjoyed walking through this year with you – the friendships we have formed this year are the fruits of our difficulty and I really do thank my God for you.
  • And finally, I have learned the immeasurable value of sharing the Word of God with a friend in need. So many women and men have reached out to me through Facebook, my blog, a text, a phone call, or a lunch to share Scripture, or a song, or a prayer to encourage me on my way.  These precious people have spoken peace to my heart.  I have fallen deeply in love with so many people, people who I barely knew before but who are now heart friends, who have fought through the awkwardness of approaching someone who is hurting to impart encouragement to my family.  I once had a precious friend fight a terrible disease at a young age.  I felt the Lord lead me to reach out to her, and when I got close to her I discovered that she was rather lonely –  her disease had scared off many people just when she needed them most.  The truth is, we are all nervous when it comes to the hurts of another person.  And we can easily push away to avoid the anxiety of the situation.  But ministry happens when we press in with gentleness.  That balance will be my goal in the future.

Lesson Six – God is in control. There is a reason we are still looking, and it has nothing to do with the recession, with Justin’s qualifications, or with the churches looking at him.  The reason is simply that God, for His own reasons, has not opened the door.  There are days we do not understand that.  There are days our family does not understand that.  There are days our friends do not understand that.  But none of our “understanding” makes that any less true.  None of this wait makes our God any less good.  He is good.  He loves us.  He is sovereign.  So we have moments of worry, yes.  But we do not live in worry.  The lesson of this year is not about worry, it is about sovereignty.  It is about resting in the arms of our Father.  So my hope is that as I walk through this with friends in the future, that I will acknowledge, as my friends have to me on days when I struggle, that God is in control and that He loves me.  Because that is the truth that overcomes all of this confusion.  At the end of the day, that truth gives peace.

Anyway – there it is – my perspective “from the other side.”  If any part of this sounded bitter or like a passive-aggressive message to anyone, please know it was not.  We hold no bitterness towards any person for their very human reaction to a seemingly frustrating situation.  We fully understand how difficult this is for friends and family to navigate and all of the people close to us have done remarkably well.  I just wanted to put this out there for someone walking with someone facing this, or for others facing it with us.  If the statistics are true, and 26% of Americans who were fulltime employees 3 years-ago no longer have that security, there are many like us out there and the church needs to work hard to be the “safe place” for people like us to land.

3 Comments

  1. Love you all and thanks for your amazing transparency! We are confident that God has great plans for you two incredible friends of ours and we count it a priviledge to “stand tall” on our knees for both of you and your precious girls on a daily basis. Thank you God for your sweet kids……….Justin and Jenn Wells!

    Reply

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