A Beginner’s Guide to Happy Unemployment

Hello! My name is simsa0 and I am your counsellor for Happy Unemployment. I am here to guide you through the problems and pitfalls on your way to a fulfilling unemployment. In order for you to succeed without too much distress, I am going to offer you some advice on what to do and how to proceed to make the best out of your current situation.

Unemployment is a challenge. But instead of perceiving it as something that needs to be overcome as quickly as possible, I want to convince you to stay on your path, to remain unemployed, and learn to detect the factors that hinder your appreciation of your new situation.

There are a lot of misconceptions about unemployment, and I want to dispel with some of these in order for you to understand the true value and potential of becoming not only a longterm unemployed but, hopefully, a lifelong unemployed. In order for you to achieve this, we have to tackle a lot of ground, demolish a lot of myths and prejudices and rebuild your confidence so that in the end you may enjoy the advantages that already lie before your eyes.

So let us begin with some misconceptions and prejudices in order to lay a foundation for your future happiness.

 

I.

Should this be the first time you are unemployed, you will probably be in a kind of shock and a state of emotional turmoil. Depending on how you and your job have ceased to be connected, you will feel a lot of anger, frustration, jealousy, even guilt. And apart from that, you will feel an existential threat.

Depending on where you live, your financial obligations, and how long and how much benefits are paid to you, the loss of a job is not only a devastating blow to your psychê and the social fabric you are embedded in. It may amount to a life threatening situation, as you may be confronted with foreclosures, seizures, and the disposition of your property. The rule of thumb is : The more affluent you have been, the more lavish your lifestyle has been in times of you having a job, the more life threatening your current situation may look like. In fact, this is one of the reasons why many from the middle class so vehemently demand of the unemployed to get a new job – they think, the objective, external stakes are indeed that high. (That it is their fear, not that of the unemployed, is a different matter.)

It is true, the better you have been able to get along in life without much property, insurances, financial obligations, the less unemployment may threaten your visible and tangible existence. But regardless of whether you belonged to the affluent or the pauperized, the shame of being unemployed will be the same. You feel like a failure. And this feeling of being a failure may come in two guises : as the feeling that you have betrayed your own moral obligations; and as if your life choices have been repudiated. Both may at times look very much the same, but they are in fact different.

Especially when in your former days of employment you tended to bad-mouth the poor and look down on the unemployed, you will now feel the shame of having to apply your former slogan “If you really want to find a job, you will find one!” to yourself. Your problem now is that you feel the moral weight of the logical equivalent statement “If you don’t find a job, you do not really want to find one” with all it’s mercilessness. Of course you want to find a new job, how can one say that you do not want to, just because you didn’t have found one yet? In fact, it’s you who had been saying it to all those unemployed, then when you had a job.

The interesting thing is that this statement may even be true, but instead of seeing its blessings it becomes all the more a whip to lash onto your back.

Of course, you will not be the only one to punish yourself for your unemployment. Your former colleagues, your friends, neighbours, family, they all will look at you as a failure, someone who struggles to stay atop and with whom one will have lenience for about three months. After that, the desertions begin.

 

II.

Feeling being a failure is a whip nobody can better lash onto your back than you yourself. In fact, your unemployment looks as if all your life choices, or at least most of those of your adult life, have been repudiated. You lost your job because you had no better education or didn’t learn the right skills to land, say, a banker’s job. You wasted the times of your youth with silly occupations. Instead of learning skills for the job market you had been much more interested reading literature, doing art or music, hanging out, socializing. Instead of learning skills that might have made you employable you chose to build soul, to nourish psychê, by immersing into the soul(s) of others. Your own fault, you might say, now.

In retrospect one always knows better. Or so it seems. When you decided to learn a skill that might have made you employable in some future, you learned the skill in times when it was fashionable or when there was a demand for it. But years later, after completion of your training, this situation had already changed – the vocation was no longer fashionable, the demand already saturated, and the job market had been moving on. Believing that you could have been the chosen one to fool the hog cycle is not so much a damning verdict of your alleged foolish aspirations; it is, far more, a damning verdict of the demands of a society, an economy, and a peer group that ask of you to be a seer of how the job market will look like in 6 years, 16, years, 36 years time.

Let us hope you never have been such a fool to believe you could learn a skill that would make you employable for a continuous stretch of time. It is true, you might be better off right now if you had learned the skills of a banker, a lawyer, a physician, an engineer, an information scientists, an economist. But honestly : When you were young, didn’t that sound like the High Road to Boredom? And have you ever been able to imagine to marry someone who would like to marry someone from these professions? To have kids with and start a family? Did you really dream to be a head official or a CEO or a CTO, even of an internet start-up? No. You did not. The most you may complain about right now is that you didn’t have the guts to go on the trip through Southeast Asia in your gap year.

So the point is this : Unemployment cannot be a repudiation of your life choices as your choices had nothing to do with a job or a position in the first place. Decrying this today just means decrying that you never have been “passionate” about being a head official.

 

III.

The main hurdle in embracing unemployment as a gift from the gods (or the angels) is that we tie our self-worth, our self-esteem, and our sense who we are to the occupations we have for a prolonged period of time. The difficult part in the education of a prospective happy unemployed is that we all identify ourselves with our occupations. And that only on the surface means our identification with our job. But underneath lies the far more intricate and problematic identification with what we “really” like to do, the identification with our “call”, our “goal in life”, our “task to fulfill”, our impulse to materialise in this world. Please stay with me here for a moment because this is a hard lesson to swallow that flies in the face of most the Human Potential movement, the dream of self-realization, the touching of one’s inner core in self-help, spirituality and esoteric stand for. It is not about the distinction between an occupation (i.e., job, external) on the one hand and the call in life (i.e., self-realization, internal) on the other. It is about what both have in common.

We tend to define ourselves by the work we do, the things we aspire, the goals we set and achieve, the results and effects we produce, the opportunities and chances we use. Since for most people it is not clear in their youth what inner call they must adhere to, they settle for some external image of what somehow, diffusely, resembles the yearnings they feel. But even if you had been so lucky to know right from the start what call in life you have and, e.g., started violin lessons by the age of 5 to become a classical violinist, even then you will later define yourself by what you do, your occupation, here : your being a world class violinist.

One major trap in unemployment is to think that when the external obligations have vanished, you are now free (and in a sense : obliged) to pursue your inner chores and ambitions. This will not materialize. Even with all your time at hand, you will not be able to sit down and start doing the life work your angel has whispered into your ear. The reason for this is very simple : You treat your inner obligations as work obligations. And as the one vanishes, so does the other.

Hitting unemployment will push you in the opposite direction. Since your personality has been defined by your occupation, the loss of this occupation brings with it a deterioration of your personality. You will experience the crumbling and devastation of your personality, your skills, your ambitions. You will encounter that after 6 months of unemployment neither will you have the interest and willpower to find a new job nor that you still have left the skills and attitudes (mostly attitudes) that make you employable. As you walk the hard way to unlearn to identify yourself with your work, the whole concept of some inner work that waits to be pursued if only there is some time vanishes into the blue. Without that image of yours that is connected with your occupation the corresponding but hidden self-image of yours does not step forward when you are no longer preoccupied. In fact, the hidden self-image always was that distant image because it had been put at that distance by your daily occupation.

So the problem with your dream of now realizing your call in life is this : You define your call as something you have to do, as another kind of occupation that you usually didn’t have the time to adhere to because you happened to have to work in another occupation that earned the money to pay the bills. The dream is that if you have the time and the money, you can turn to your proper occupation. But the fact is that should you ever have enough time and decent money, e.g., in times of unemployment, you not only will fail to engage with this “proper” occupation – the “proper” occupation dissolves in the moment you have the time to concentrate on it.

 

IV.

It may be useful to digress for a moment for some remarks on this rather elusive concept of a call in life, or the calling, and how it relates to jobs and psychê. First I want to note that what I said so far is not intended to deny the existence of callings or that everybody has a call. But given how people suffer in unemployment, we have to have a closer look what role callings may play.

We are not identical with our call – That means that regardless what our ego or soul or inner core or higher being may be, it is not what the angels have bestowed upon us as call. Accordingly, the endeavour to realize oneself by means of finding and thenceforth fullfilling one’s call becomes a dubious enterprise. Identifying ourselves, on the other hand, with our call – or “acorn” as James Hillman once put it [1] – just reinvites a secular form of the theodicy problem from which there is no escape. Is the inner self identical with the life call, then Hitler’s call was what he was set out to do. Then to believe the acorn can somehow be both a true life call and nevertheless “innocent” or “good” becomes untenable. There must then be some life calls (or acorns) that are truly evil, contrary to the suggestions and intentions of Hillman and others (e.g., Alice Miller). But the choice is not between a conception of a call in life that is either always innocent and good or that is sometimes good, sometimes evil (what seems far more realistic). Either alternative suggests itself when the concept of a call in life is identified with the concept of the inner self. But not identifying both leaves the question simply open and unanswered – not identifying call and inner core means that we have no way to find out whether the one or the other.

The call is (primarily) detectable retrospectively – This is one reaction to the above conundrum. It means that the call is not found by scrutinizing one’s soul or one’s yearnings, thereby risking conflating the call with one’s ego. Instead the call may be found (primarily) retrospectively by means of going through the biography of the person. It means to discover the call in what showed itself as a common thread in the person’s life. Not only do we thus avoid essentializing kharma, but we furthermore keep choice, responsibility, freedom, guilt, fate alive and relvant.

The call is not a job-like endeavour – When there is no identification of call and core, and when the call is only retrospectively detectable, then the urge to realize one’s inner self in the environment with the help of specific activities becomes redundant. It means that our call is not some work, some action, some occupation (even as it may show itself in these) but that it resides in the sphere of morals, conscience, tenderness, etc. The severing of ego and call frees the ego from its heavy dutiful burdens and keeps the call the secret we may only once in while be permitted to have a glimpse upon. And it further means that the ego has no way to impose itself on something other by simply appealing to some higher goals.

The meaning of “a person’s path” changes – Usually people see their life’s path in what they are successful in, what obstacles they overcame, in what areas they felt most authentic, real, strong, pure. But given that one’s call is detectable only retrospectively, and that one’s call is not like a job or some other vocation, success and failure in life will no longer be the criterion of having been true to one’s call or not. The path is not where one has been successful. Rather, the path lies in what kept one going, especially in times of hardship and pain. So what is it that keeps you going?

 

V.

As we identify our personhood with our occupations, the loss of employment triggers a deterioration of our inner selves. The more you stop being in the grip of externally provided employment or an internally suggested life call, the more you feel your person crumble. The agony and pulverization of the whole self can be a terrifying experience for many and is one reason why people insist on work come what may. People are rather poised to demonstrate for more jobs than embrace the opportunity to stop occupations that are harmful to them, their communities and the planet as a whole. The fear of not having and not being able to work is ubiquitous. Who am I if I don’t work? And who am I if I don’t realize my inner self or my life call?

Indeed. Who are you when you are not working? Who are you if you don’t have a job, an occupation, even a call? What is it with your life when you are 25 or 30 years old and will never have a decent job to earn a living, raise a family, or whatever? Who are you, when you are no longer who you were supposed to be or dreamed to be? Who are you when there is no “you” left that shows itself to others and yourself by being occupied with chores and activities? Who are you when you fall out of form, grow a belly, lose your edge and skills? Who are you without a goal to pursue? Who are you when you stop insisting on being an image?

The panic most people feel when they lose their jobs and become unemployed only on the surface touches concrete material problems. These are real, no question, but how real depends on how much they stand for the problems the psychê has with the new situation. The panic runs deep, right through the core and the essence of your being. The suffering of not being able to act, to have no obligation or task, the deterioration of the personality and the panic with regard to a feared dissolution in some amorphous void – these reactions that show themselves on such a profound and existential level, in such intensity, as such profound and immense threats, can only be compared with the severe withdrawal syndromes of a lifelong drug user.

I suggest that you can only come to terms with your unemployment when you tackle these threats. Conceive of your former (self-) employed self as an addicted self. You are addicted to work. And with that I don’t mean that you are a workaholic. I mean that your normal daily connection to work, to occupation, to activity in general is an addiction.

 

VI.

If you don’t have work on a continuous basis, you react with panic and withdrawal syndromes, like all other addicts. You are in a cold turkey without knowing it. Part of withdrawal is the constant attacks of doubts and the loss of self-esteem. Every addict has to hit rock bottom. We have to enter the basement (the underworld, if you will) in order to bring something up to the light. Feeling unworthy is just part of how it feels when the identification of you and your work dissolves.

Of course, you will protest against being called an addict. You had no choice, you will say, you had to find an education, learn skills, do a job. And I don’t mean to imply that you chose your work like others may choose their crack pipe. Quite the contrary: the work, it seems, chose you.

I won’t enter into the interesting question whether not all addictions share this same feature, viz., that they choose their carrier, the addicted person. Here I rather mean that society, history, and the way we do economy placed onto you from the outside a structure that has all the features and characteristics we normally associate with addictions, put into place by the addicted person herself.

In 1994 Ralph Metzner, building on Stanton Peele, suggested to look at addictions not with regard to their means and objects, but rather as a specific type of experience. [2] He contrasted it with the “normal” state of consciousness and with the various forms of transcendence. Using the image of a circle, he proposed to symbolize the normal state of consciousness as a specific sector of the circle, and relative to this addiction as a contrived and transcendence as an enlarged sector.

“I propose that addictive experiences, compulsions, and attachments involve a fixation of attention and a narrowing of perceptual focus – in other words, a contracted state of consciousness.” (p.5)

In this contracted state, the attention is “selectively focused on […] the object of desire, the craved sensation, the bottle or the pipe, to the exclusion of other aspects of reality, other segments of the total circle.” (p.5)

With external or internal stimuli, a given state of consciousness can be altered. Usually the pathological side of addictions come to light when these alterations are triggered to avoid certain unpleasant feelings or states. In that sense, what an addiction provides is twofold : it provides a certain desired state of consciousness, in a ritualistic, compulsive, and repeated manner; and it shields against some unpleasant experiences. Important seems to be the mood swing involved in the preparation of the means of the addiction. In substance abuse, e.g., the ritualistic preparation of the drug already triggers a decent mood swing. It calms down and provides a feeling of empowerment. So we may describe an addiction as an addictive experience that is sought after and brought about in a compulsive and ritualistic manner, as in its “contraction of awareness” it shields from unpleasant emotions and gives feelings of empowerment.

But in this description it doesn’t seem to matter whether the addict is putting himself into such states of mind or whether he is placed into them by some external forces and circumstances. The description is broad enough to allow the possibility that individuals have the constant and recurring experience of “contracted awareness” in which they are fixated on specific objectives, brought about by compulsory and ritualistic settings. They even may feel empowered when placed regularly in these conditions. That is: I propose to understand work and the conditions of the workspace as an externally organized way to induce a “contraction of awareness”. These conditions must entail repetition and compulsion to produce this fixation on the work objective. Work is thus a recurrent addictive experience that shields us from feelings of impotence and senselessness while providing us with favourable experiences and material benefits. [3] In fact, work as such an experience not only shields us from these negative feelings; it creates these feelings by its very nature of being an addiction. (Or put differently : As work happens to utilize the features one usually finds in addictive experiences, the feelings of impotence and senselessness happen to arise because the absence or cessation of the addictive experience just brings about such feelings.)

That work and the workplace have these kinds of compulsion, repetition, ritualistic enactments, and fixations seems obvious. We usually still not count as “real” work an occupation that has a flexible time schedule. Work is what happens regularly in a certain period of time. Depending on the sector, work always has the compulsive character of “getting things done”, thereby excluding every other objective, even the well-being of fellow employees.

We shouldn’t underestimate the addictive essence of work. The withdrawal syndromes accompanying unemployment are severe, involving a breakdown in self and personality that seems incomparable with any other addiction. Conceiving the psychological problems of unemployment as hidden withdrawal syndromes can free us from treating unemployment in terms of moral failure or as problems of economics and jurisdiction.

 

VII.

With these preparatory remarks we are now in a position to facilitate your transition to a happy unemployed.

Your addiction to work shows in the withdrawal syndromes you experience when you are out of work, in the agony and the pulverization of your whole self. So who are you when you are not working? Who are you if you don’t have a job, an occupation, a calling?

Well, your unemployment is not about you. Your unemployment is a gift from the gods to the world. The world may now take a breath because the stress of you running around vanished. Your unemployment and the doubts it creates, is a gift to the world, as another person just stopped knowing who she was and what to do (and thereby messing up all that is left). Your not knowing who you are gives the world a tiny shiver of ambiguity and of renewed complexity.

The world is made of stories, not of actions or facts. Not that actions or facts don’t tell stories – but these are rather stories set in stone, not talked about at a bonfire. Inasmuch as you recover from work, you will recover your sense of stories. After the humiliation and the defeat you may understand that all that is you and that is about you has nothing to do with work. It is about the story or the stories your life tells, it is about this precious way of seeing the world through your very own eyes, this very subjectivity the gods have bestowed on you, to see the world the peculiar way no-one else can. Seeing the world through these very eyes means that there is an additional way in which the world is perceived. It thus grows and recovers this very aspect only you are able to lend to it.

Understanding that not your work but your story is what enriches and nourishes the world may give you some different sense of identity. You are not what you work or what you do, you are what you perceive and what you can marvel about. This not only nourishes you but the world as well. When you see that happy unemployment consists in the understanding that you and the world are undeserved but loving buddies, then you may even start to pick up a tool one day, a pen, something this or that. When you understand that your activity is not about you but the you inside all, then addiction has been replaced with gratitude and admiration. You may then even work, now and then. But not too much. Because the world needs less work, not more. And so do you.

 

[1] James Hillman, The Soul’s Code : In Search of Character and Calling, New York: Random House, 1996.
[2] Ralph Metzner, “Addiction and Transcendence as Altered States of Consciousness”, The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 26 (1994), pp. 1-17 http://www.atpweb.org/jtparchive/trps-26-94-01-001.pdf
[3] When Bob Black in 1985 described how discipline is the preferred mode of control in every economic environment, even more important than the mere “rational maximization of productivity and profit”, he described on the sociological level the effects of what might otherwise be called a prolonged collective addictive experience. That is: He described how work and economy are possible only by utilizing our inclination to addictive experiences. See: Bob Black, “The Abolition of Work”, in: The Abolition of Work and other Essays, Port Townsend (WA): Loompanics Unlimited, 1986. http://www.theopenunderground.de/@pdf/kapital/anarcho/abolitionwork.pdf

 

* * *

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Beginner’s Guide to Happy Unemployment

  1. Nai says:

    There is so much goodness here. Not only is it very well-written but the ideas explored are immensely profound. It took me down many paths, all of which led to my center. I’ll have to keep returning to it. Thank you very much.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s