I am unemployed on purpose.
To be clear: I left a job that I loved because I was worried that someday I would stop loving it. I knew I wouldn’t stay there forever, and I wanted to be able to look back on that season of my life with fondness and gratitude, not bitterness. The timing was right, so I can do that now: I am immensely grateful.
So now I’m unemployed, and I have been for nearly two months. On purpose though. As of this writing, I haven’t even seriously looked for a new job.
When this isn’t liberating, it provokes a lot of anxiety. When I was planning my purposeful unemployment, I was worried about money. I thought I’d be worried about money now, and I’m not (which worries me). What really bothers – frightens – me more isn’t that practical, logistical stuff, but the existential stuff. The night before my last day at my job, I had trouble falling asleep because I kept thinking: after tomorrow, what will I tell people? When I meet someone new, what do I tell them after my name? Who will I be other than my name?
Somehow, in our culture, career is tightly tied to identity. It might be because we start young, thinking about our resumes before we can read. The American Dream probably has something to do with it too: that realistic fantasy of working really hard at one job for a really long time, and ending up better off because of it. We love to work hard, we take great pride in that, it’s part of who we are.
To be clear, again: I love to work, to produce more than I consume. Doing work that I’m proud of is really important to me. And for Christians, it’s part of our calling.
But I’ve been thinking about this a little differently not only because I’m unemployed and “work” looks different for me now, but because I’m in a part of Europe where the attitude toward work is much more…lackadaisical…than what I’m used to. The two-hour lunch breaks (no working lunches??), the long vacations (four weeks??), the sometimes lacking customer service (don’t they care about bad reviews and potentially losing my business??) – I have trouble with it all sometimes. Another thing that I noticed is that with the exception of ever-faithful Starbucks, it’s challenging to find wifi in public spaces. At first this made me wonder how people work from coffee shops and cafes, but then I wondered: would it even occur to them to do such a thing? Maybe here, work is meant to be constrained to specific times and places. Maybe a career only takes place from 9-to-5 (or, 9-to-noon and then 2-to-5). It doesn’t leave the office with the worker, it’s not part of who they are.
I’m not ready to proclaim a European attitude of work, and I don’t think I ever will or should. But right now, it’s somewhat comforting, knowing that that missing part of my identity didn’t need to be part of who I am one the first place. It’s okay if my job is a bullet point in my life and words on my resume.
Sometime last year, I was at a party chatting with a guy from the neighborhood. Upon introduction, he started to say, “so what do you do?” But then he stopped himself.
“Wait. That’s bullshit. People always talk about their jobs. Tell me who you are.”
Now I just have to remember what I told him.