Monday, March 25, 2013

The Spirituality of Underemployment

The last few months have seen a different dynamic in my household.

For years, we've had a pattern.  I've been the part-timer, the one with flexibility.  Laundry and bills and taxes and kid-shuttling are the tents I make as a part-time pastor.  Which, if you didn't get that reference, was me talking about Paul of Tarsus, who kept himself employed as a tentmaker as he spread the word through the Greco-Roman world.  It's not always been easy, and it's meant some "pastor-career" tradeoffs.  But it was necessary to keep our lives sane.

My wife was the full-timer.  She put in the 70 hour weeks, and worked late into the night to insure that what needed to get done got done.  It was lucrative but stressful, rewarding but sometimes overwhelming.  She was good at what she did.  She had my support in it, in all that she did, although I would occasionally suggest that slowing down might be good.

Ma'am, I'm going to ask you to step away from the smartphone.  Put it down.  Nice and easy.

And slow down she has now, thanks to the downsizing that was her reward for doing her job well.  There's been some consulting work, thanks be to the Maker, but we now find ourselves among the ranks of the underemployed.

For now, we're holding the line financially.  Our house is small, our cars are modest and paid off, and beyond our mortgage we have assiduously avoided debt.   In the fat years, we saved compulsively, driven by my inherently conservative view of financial well-being.  It's me Scots blood, laddie.  So the winter is upon us, but the granary is full.  But there are other impacts to underemployment, and they are, quite frankly, spiritual in nature.

Feeling like you have a sense of purpose is absolutely vital to the well-being of all human critters.  It gives us a story about ourselves.  It gives us a feeling of value.  It's vital.

Our culture has woven up our sense of purpose with our careers.  What makes us worthwhile human beings is our workiness, the degree to which we're out there getting it done and bringing home the bacon.  We work hard for the money, so you better treat us right.

Now, though, underemployment is everywhere.  Folks work jobs that don't even come close to tapping their abilities.  Either the hours aren't there or the work is simply mindless.  It is, among the generation that followed mine, almost inescapable.  How do we, creatures of purpose, survive those times without coming apart at the seams?

1)  Resist the chaos.  One of the most peculiar things about being underemployed is that it can involve a crazy amount of freedom.  Your day is yours.  You can do whatever you want.  Sleep late!  Eat waffles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!  Muck about on Pinterest until you're pinning things even when your eyes are closed.  Drop into a fifteen-hundred point Conquest server on Battlefield 3, and let those hours just vanish in a haze of FPS crazy.

You can do these things.  And people do.  But life is short, and flies on by.  Freedom is great, but it can quickly become aimless sameness.  You aren't doing anything new, but have fallen into a churning nothing.   You are free, but your freedom is joyless.

Here, be attentive to both framing ritual and intentional newness.  Having intentional patterns to your day helps.  There's a time to wake, and a time to sleep.  There's a time to work, and a time to take a shower, 'cause Lord have mercy, you're getting a little rank.  Be mindful about these things.

But also keep yourself open to the potential for newness.   Leave space for intentionally encountering new things, and don't let the prison of aimless chaos be your only guide.

2)  Take time to be creative.   Freedom and creativity are not the same thing.  If you are underutilized and underhoured, then view that extra time as a gift.  And with that gift, do the thing that lights you up.  Paint or sketch.  Study those things that fascinate you.  Sing.  Write music.  Write that novel.  Crank out those short stories.  Explore.  Encounter.  Pray.  Read. Contemplate.

Use your time, and don't let your time use you.  And it will, if you aren't wary.  Ours is not a culture that values creativity.  The consumer ethic will take your every moment of freedom and turn it into aimless hunger.  Which is harder to feed, given that resources and underemployment don't go hand in hand.  That leads to frustration, which leads to bitterness and resentment, which leads to dark places.

We are meant to be beings that give form and shape to our reality.  Don't let that part of our essential human nature fade because vocation is harder to find.

3)  Maintain human connection.   Our radically individualized society promises us anything we want, but at a price.  That price is other human beings, and the sustaining connections of friendship and community.

When the natural interactions of the workplace vanish, when those friendships we develop from working side by side with colleagues wane, it becomes all the easier to fold into ourselves.  We can become closed off in a media bubble, separated from the world by our feeds and our channels and our gaming and our pinning.  That can sustain us for a while, but it is, of itself, not adequate.  You need to get out there.  Talk and schmooze and klatch and chill with friends.   Resist that tendency to wrap yourself up in resentments or depression or anger.  Those pesky demons will eat you alive.  Best not to let that happen.

Church is a great place for that, as are community organizations, teams, and any group where you can share a genuine interest.  Do not neglect this.  We are, after all, not made to be alone.

4)  Care for your body.  
The absence of business means an absence of busyness, and that can mean not just social inactivity, but physical inactivity.  This has lasting negative consequences, because the Ancient Hebrews had it right.  Our spirits and our bodies are not totally separate things, any more than the oak and the soil and the sky are totally separate things.  If we're neglecting our physical well being, then our spirituality suffers.  We become more easily listless, and more easily lost.  Anxieties and angers and woes come more easily, and stick around longer.

So walk.   Lift weights.  Run.  Hike.  If you've got an old bike, use it.  These things aren't expensive, and they aren't hugely demanding, but they do keep you fit.  In an enforced fallow time, that's a vital, vital part of staying centered and gracious.

5)  Enjoy what you find yourself doing.   I worked for years as a dishwasher in a university cafeteria.  It was fiercely active, demanding, and low paying.   That conveyor belt brought trays by the hundreds, and at first, it was a bit overwhelming.  But as I did my work, I focused on it, got good at it, and found that it became almost a form of meditation.   I would be flying, doing the work of three, and yet my mind would be my own.  It was calming.  Pleasurable, even.

After I got my college degree, I was unemployed for a good long while, having entered the marketplace smack in the middle of the post-Reagan recession.  When I did find almost-full-time work, it was as a stock clerk in a small family owned restaurant and store.  I focused on doing the job, and doing it well.  That was what mattered.  Sure, the pay was low.  Some of my co-workers spent more of the day complaining than they did working.  So it goes.  We can choose to live defined by resentment.   But I let myself find happiness in the simple ordering of stocking shelves and racking up drinks, and let myself take pleasure in a neatly swept floor at the end of the day.

6)   Understand your worth unconditionally.   This is the Jesus part, and being a teacher of His Way, I'd suggest it's the most important.  When you find yourself working less or not at all, and scrambling for a living, our success-and-attainment driven culture tells us that we're nothing.  We have failed.  We are pathetic.  Survival of the fittest, baby.  Them's the breaks, weakling.  You just didn't try hard enough.  It's your fault that you're so useless.

This isn't real.  Oh, it's the reality we've created for ourselves, sure.  But the entirety of our economic system is our doing.  We've chosen to make it this way.

Christian faith resists that worldview.  It asserts that our value as sentient beings stems from our unconditional value before our creator, whose love for us is unchanging and inescapable.  Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Jesus was his relentless insistence on loving people who - according to his culture - didn't deserve it.  He loved the sick.  He loved women.  He loved the tax-man.  He loved the soldier serving an occupying army.

When you're wrestling with your own worth as a person, that's a word of liberation.  But liberation for what?

7)   Pay that worth forward.   Being a disciple of Jesus in the desert place of underemployment means not just receiving grace.  It is not meant just for us.  It is meant to be shared.   Take time to positively contribute to those around you.  That can be in words of kindness, or in attending to grace in your every relationship.  But it also means finding places where your hands are needed, and apply your energies there.  Beyond writing and studying, I've taken my own half-time work as an opportunity to drive for the local Meals on Wheels program, which brings food to the homebound elderly and those living with disabilities.

Meals on Wheels has been struggling recently to accomplish its noble purpose, because the homemakers who once volunteered were drawn into the workforce or the berserk activity-storm of our children's overscheduled lives.

Knowing this, and knowing that from that Deep Reality we are all called to give of ourselves, I've made a point of making time to serve.  

It's not easy, being underutilized.  But you can get through it.  It can be a place of grace.