The “Unemployed” Label

“I feel worthless.” The words came out of my mouth and like ants crawled across the bed into my wife’s ears. As I lay there, clutching my pillow, the overwhelming sense consumed me. It was painful to say, but finally getting the words out somehow eased a bit of the hurt. I had told Hailey, and almost anyone who asked, that being unemployed had taken me through a couple of different stages. I had accepted it and been okay for a while, then felt angry and bitter about the PCUSA hiring process and for the last month or so I had just been restless. But this night brought on a new feeling, an emotion I wish I could completely forget.

Maybe it all started when the nurse at the doctor’s office asked what I was doing with the extra day off for Memorial Day. I told her I’d probably spend it with family. She continued, wondering if I had to go back to work after the appointment. I looked down at my feet, commented that I didn’t and as she took my vitals she said, “a four day weekend, awesome!” I nodded my head as my insides suddenly constricted. Yeah, awesome.

Days later I was walking with a friend and one of his roommates whom I had never met. The roommate asked what I did for a living, an honest and innocent question, and I laughed reciting my tired line of, “I’m a trophy husband.” As I told him all about my job search, my heart sank and my morale continued to take a self inflicted beating.

At church the last few weeks there has been a sermon series on Thessalonians. The last three weeks took us to the rather difficult and often taboo subject of heaven, hell and Christ’s return. Most of what was said I agreed with but when we got to how we are to live and work as Christians (not knowing the specifics of the when, how and where of the second coming but living as though it could happen at any moment), I couldn’t help but squirm in my seat. Thoughts of inadequacy began to infiltrate the thick walls of my inner-being as I realized I had not been busy living or working to love others, use my gifts or serve the way I thought I had been called.

Its sad how much worth I put into what I “do.” I once heard a talk about how people don’t really know how to get to know each other in casual conversation anymore.  He argued that too many of us couldn’t talk with one another without bringing up our job or role in life. And for this reason he suggested that we only know how to find our identity in our profession or that which we spend the majority of our time doing. One is an engineer, fireman, mother, academic, teacher or a musician. If we aren’t busy labeling ourselves by what we do, we do so by how we look, where we live or what we believe. We are American, Mexican, Californian, Asian, Black, White, Rich, Poor, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Straight, Gay, Republican, Democrat or a mix of any or all of them. Some of us even seek to be un-labeled. We fight so hard against them that we create a new one, a more innovative stereotype and eventually simply another misnomer. Regardless of how hard we try, a label will always be connected with who we are as individuals. Yet our American culture doesn’t allow us to exist outside of the one that is placed on our forehead.

Our worth, or my worth at the very least, ends up being found in something that ultimately will let me down. I trained for years to be a pastor. I believe I’m still supposed to be one. But without an official label its as if the person I have become, or the work I have done up to this point, means nothing. As I talked with Hailey in bed that night, rather than being content with husband, uncle, brother, son, mentor and friend I was a nonentity. For some reason, I had allowed myself to believe that I needed to be more than the child of God that I was created to be. It’s as if having “Rev.” in front of my name would validate my existence. At that moment it felt as though even a pretty placard on a desk, magnet on the side of a car or a nametag and goofy uniform would help me have importance.

Months ago I wrote, that unemployment didn’t define me, that it wasn’t my label. Yet at times my insecurity prevails, proving otherwise. Deep down, I know I am important. I know I am loved. I know I am not alone. Ultimately, I know I am not worthless. But when I slip, when that button is pushed and I fall into the dunk tank of misery, convincing myself that I have nothing to offer, I need not turn to a label that I have attempted to obtain for so long, but to the label that really has value. As I moved from my bed to sob in the big red chair in our living room, feeling as though God was distant, I found comfort and relief in every tear that ran down my cheek. The warmth of each drop seemed to lighten the load that got heavier as each unemployed month piled on top of one another.

Though I have always considered myself an emotional guy, Hailey continuously has to reassure me that crying is indeed okay. I am in mourning after all. I am mourning my life schedule, my goals and my personal agenda. I am still learning that I am not in control and mostly that the label I’ve been conditioned to give myself, as much as I may grieve having it, in the long run will teach me something important. Hopefully I will look back at this time with thanks, as a part of a journey or scene in the grand picture. The labels given and received will end up being nothing more than a human attempt at naming a time and situation in a way that I don’t have the right to do. Sometimes it is a lot harder being a character in the story than the author…

  • John O’Dea

    Someday this will evolve into a sermon when you are regularly in the pulpit. We are indeed defined by what we do. That becomes who we are. I don’t have any good words of wisdom on this. I wish I did. I have felt those feelings. And plead with God to be less distant in those same moments. When you are employed, you almost become envious of those unemployed with dreams of what could be done with all the free time. But that free time inevitably becomes consumed by the thoughts of what should be done to get employed and thus the unemployed are envious of those employed.

    Deep down and in all relationships, Dave, you are far more than the trophy husband. God has surrounded you with family, friends, peers and a wife that love and support you. You will return all that in multiple ways and for many years to come. It does not make today any easier, but it makes tomorrow filled with joy.

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