Orare est laborare, laborare est orare.
(To pray is to work, to work is to pray.)
- Benedictine Order Motto.
What would you do for a living if you could do anything at all? Do you like your work? What does your job mean to you? A clean and dry place to live? Food on the table? A car? Cable TV, a new couch, books, high-tech gadgets, travel, Yankees game tickets, weekends at the beach, concerts, movies with popcorn? Or maybe your work is a vital part of your identity?
I have been wrestling with these questions and more during the past few months as I face unemployment in a few weeks. Unless one of the many potential employers whom I've applied to decide to hire me or fund my research very soon, this will be the first time in my life that I've ever been unemployed -- truly unemployed. And I am scared: I have nowhere to go, no one to "crash" with if I am still jobless in six months when my unemployment insurance benefits run out. Because I have been aggressively searching for a job for 13 months and 6 days without any luck, I have no faith that my "luck" will change anytime soon. The only scenario I can think of is that I will end up in a homeless shelter or on a park bench.
Throughout my life, I've always managed to scrounge some sort of "survival job", although the search has often been daunting and I've sometimes had to be creative about what consititutes a job. I was on my own from the age of 15 onward, so I have worked many low-wage blue-collar jobs to support myself and to pay my way through school, but regardless of how awful the position (and many were truly awful), I always accepted the job and worked hard because, I reminded myself, doing so would get me closer to my dream career that I had pursued my entire life -- a profession that gave my life purpose, dignity and respect, where I would never again have to beg for a job or risk being unemployed.
But now that I have achieved my educational goals and supposedly am well on my way career-wise, I find myself trapped in a blind alley, without any real employment possibilities. After two wonderful years working on a research project of my own design as a postdoctoral fellow, my funding stops at the end of this month. Now, I am routinely rejected for employment by blue-collar and managerial jobs, many that I have worked in the past, because I am "overqualified" or "not qualified", two terms that apparently do not mean the same things. On the rare occasions when someone even speaks to me, I find myself being lectured by cranky managers who claim I am wasting their valuable time with my application because they cannot believe I am serious about working for them.
As if I am not seriously trying to avoid unemployment and impeding homelessness.
Mid-level jobs in my field that I have applied for, such as lab managers, also reject me for many of the same reasons. For example, I answered the telephone about four months ago and spoke with a scientist calling from a major university in London, England. I applied a month or so earlier to his DNA sequencing facility for his advertized lab manager position. After a brief "interview", he suddenly demanded in an accusing voice, "Don't you think this job is beneath you?"
"I think unemployment is beneath me." I replied quietly, surprised and hurt by the vehemence of his question. Obviously, this was the wrong response because I did not get the job. Even though these rejections sting, being hired for some of these positions, particularly the blue-collar jobs, would pose big problems because the wages are low enough or the hours irregular enough that I would barely be able afford my rent if I accepted the job. So if I was hired, I would have to (somehow) find a second job to cover my other living expenses, such as food, power and cell phone.
But with every day that passes, I am still astonished that I cannot find a job in my field! What happened? I work very hard at the research that I love, I have devoted myself completely to its demands, willingly made huge personal and financial sacrifices, yet this apparently is not good enough. I am loathe to switch scientific fields, but this is what I am being forced to consider if I wish to avoid eating out of public garbage cans in the not-too-distant future. Unfortunately, I have discovered that I cannot easily switch fields either because I am competing for the same limited job pool against people with more experience in these other fields.
So I don't know what to do. The only advice I can give myself right now is don't panic! Sometimes I repeat this under my breath like a mantra. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to remain calm as my time here slips through my fingers ever more quickly. I have not been able to get a good night's sleep for months, I have trouble eating, I am tense and easily aggravated, and I just cannot deal with any more pressure.
In addition to the practical worries of how to support myself, I have other worries: My profession is a huge part of my self identity. Perhaps this wrong, as some people tell me (although I think it's fortunate) but the simple truth is that I genuinely like and admire who I am because of my work. Without the guiding purpose of my work and my birds in my life, I would not be the person I am now. The brilliant Vincent van Gogh movingly described his own work, also capturing my devotion to mine, when he observed so long ago, "Your profession is not what brings home your paycheck. Your profession is what you were put on earth to do, with such passion and such intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling."
So I worry incessantly about how I will survive this loss. I already know I will be devastated because I nearly immobilized by despair when I do ponder, however briefly, the loss of my profession. I try to prevent myself from becoming overwhelmed by downplaying the importance of this event in my life, but my spirit is not fooled. Life without my profession feels like a cheap consolation prize, a shadow existence, a marking of time's passage. I am neither emotionally nor financially nor socially equipped to deal with this loss. It's simply beyond my comprehension. So what will I do? How will I survive the loss of all that I've loved and dreamed of achieving, can I survive the loss of this dazzling hope that got me through so many dark and terrible days throughout my life? What sort of person will I transform into after I've been stripped of all that I cherish? Will I become hollow and defeated for the remainder of my days?