Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Honoring the Work of the Unemployed

A middle aged professional shared with me that he had run into an old acquaintance recently who asked him where he was working these days. His shoulders automatically drooped and his jaw tightened as he answered with more than a little embarrassment, “Well, I’m not working anywhere at the moment, I’ve been laid off.” I was saddened and unsettled by his response. Although, yes, in fact, he was currently unemployed, his answer wasn’t true. He was deeply engaged with his work. He had created an abundant and beautiful organic garden, filled with a variety of vegetables and bordered by perennial flowers. He was engrossed in research on sustainable living, an issue he had always cared about but had never had the time to actively pursue, and he had become involved with a group of activists lobbying for health care reform. In a culture where what one does for a job appears to have become the primary measurement of a man’s success, the story my ‘unemployed’ friend had begun telling about his own life had become tragically distorted.

Beldon Lane in The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality quotes an old man in William Least Heat Moon’s book, Blue Highways who asserted,

“A man’s never out of work if he’s worth a damn. It’s just sometimes he doesn’t get paid. I’ve gone unpaid my share and I’ve pulled my share of pay. But that’s got nothing to do with working. A man’s work is doing what he’s supposed to do, and that’s why he needs a catastrophe now and again to show him a bad turn isn’t the end, because a bad stroke never stops a good man’s work.”

Lane makes an important distinction in his book between our jobs and our work. In our jobs, points out Lane, we attend to what needs tending to for money, with our work, we attend to what matters the most to us.

There are so many stories told every day about Americans who have found themselves without jobs through no fault of their own, and while these stories sadden me for a multitude of reasons, I’m also captivated by the stories we are not telling. I am referring to those stories that have nothing to do with stock prices, the gross national product, unemployment figures, or our national debt. I’m referring to stories about those who are unemployed and who are providing loving care to fragile and elderly parents and even neighbors, who are volunteering, involving themselves in local politics to an extent that they never had time for before, who are changing lives and even in some cases helping to revise and strengthen entire communities.

There may be fewer jobs available, but there is no less work to be done. In fact, it feels to me as though there is more work then ever before. Lets not underestimate for a moment the tremendous value of those who are doing so much of this work -- the unemployed.

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