Layoffs, Lies and Lessons Learned

Apr 27, 2010 |Mike Ensley
Layoffs, Lies and Lessons Learned

You don't just lose a job when you lose a job. No matter what the truth is, it can still feel like you're worthless. And that matters enough.  

One of my Facebook friends recently posted that he'd been laid off from his job, a place where he'd worked for many years. Looking at his initial post and his responses to the subsequent comments, I saw a lot of familiar emotions.

Getting laid off or fired is hard. It's like a death. Doors of change are always hard to walk through; it's even worse to be shoved.

My own layoff at the end of 2008 was followed by several weeks of confusion. It was actually hard to make the resume writing, job hunting and researching of schools take up most of my time. Restlessness, loneliness and depression were hard to fend off. Maybe that's because I'm a single guy, but honestly I have no idea whether being married would make it easier or more difficult.

I'm not very good at the "what do I do now?" question. Well-thought-out plans are not something I generate with natural ease. I think that's why I enjoy writing. I can just fly by the seat of my pants and go back later and fix what needs fixing.

But what do I do? God's never been quick to answer that question for me. Maybe it's because He's focusing His spiritual scalpel not on what I do, but on what I believe, how I think, who I'm listening to.

You're worthless.

Nobody has to say it. Nobody said it to me. Funny how this belief still kept creeping into my thought process as I was forced to rearrange my life. Some people say you are what you do, and others insist that you're not. Personally I think they may both be a little right and a little wrong (I'm also aware that this may be a cop-out, so I'm still thinking).

During my newfound unemployment, a friend of mine who coordinates service efforts at church got me into some volunteer work. Still, there were days when nobody needed me for anything, and without any tasks or anywhere to be I would feel listless and depressed.

I definitely agree with John Eldredge's assertion that one of the deepest questions asked in a man's heart is, "Do I have what it takes?" I can't say if it's any less of a big deal for women, but I'm sure it still matters. And like it or not, our employment status will speak to that question, to some degree at least.

When I was in college, my best friend and I got jobs at the school library. I think we only worked there one semester, but ultimately our supervisor fired us both.

One of the reasons she let me go was, "I think you need a job that's a lot easier. One you don't have to think too much about." Translation: You're not very bright. Try flipping burgers, if you can get your head around that.

Looking back on that time, and knowing who and how I was back then, it's amazing I wasn't more affected by her words. I think mostly I was relieved because it had been a boring job that I hated. Also, she immediately replaced us with her niece and her niece's best friend (who often came into the library to gab with her for long periods of time), so I assumed it was more a matter of personal convenience than judgment of my abilities.

My friend took it pretty hard, though. I remember him being close to tears as we walked to our cars that day.

"She's basically saying we're worthless," he said to me, clutching his pink slip. "We aren't worth seven bucks an hour. That's what this says." His face told me he really believed it.

I personally hadn't put much stock in that job. Years later, however, I would be let go from something far more important to me, something I thought was my calling, my ministry, my future. It was a job I invested a lot more of myself in, made a lot of sacrifices for.

The official reason I was let go was financial hardship. I had no reason to think it was anything else, but it wasn't long before my own insecurity and tendency toward mistrust was seeking out memories and exploiting inadequacies, dissecting personal problems in search of a source of guilt and shame. I suspect whatever form of Enemy has been dispatched to fight against me was at work in this, as well.

If you've been laid off or fired, I'm sure we are brothers in our journeys through shame, anger, suspicion, hopelessness, disillusionment. It's understandable. You don't just lose a job when you lose a job. No matter what the truth is, it can still feel like you're worthless. And that matters enough.

I don't know if you need to reevaluate how much of your identity is in your job. Just ask for the faith to know your Shepherd comes looking when you're not close, even when He's got a full house.

Let's not end this section sounding like I'm really good at believing that. I know I should believe it, and I want to. God help me.

It's time for Plan B.

Christians talk a lot about "God's best" and "God's will for your life." We get the impression that this is some specific storyline mapped out for us in advance, relationships and jobs and locations and dates which must not be deviated from. One misstep or missed opportunity and you're looking at something less than the best. You are now in uncharted territory, and if this isn't what God was hoping to accomplish, who knows how invested He's going to be now?

You probably won't hear a sermon to that effect, but then again it's often in the subtext, isn't it? They've got so many of us frantic to figure out exactly what God wants us to be doing. I bet we're easy to control that way.

Working in full-time ministry, I figured I'd pretty much nailed it. Everyone around me seemed to confirm this, too. They told me I was "anointed," that I had a huge calling on my life for this area of ministry. People saw God's plan for me, and it went far! I can't recount how many times people shared their thoughts on where God was leading me, but it was a lot.

It's not going to happen now. And I must admit, there were a lot of eggs in that basket. I mean, I thought that's what trusting God looks like. Then all of a sudden I'm almost 30 and once again asking, "What do I want to be when I grow up?"

Was there a lot of personal identity wrapped up in the job you lost? That's not wrong. It's not idolatry. We have passions and desires that are as God-given as our hands and feet, and they draw us toward certain things in life.

Like I said, it's normal to feel depressed and kind of pointless. Maybe we aren't defined by what we do, but we have trouble being who we are without doing something, if that makes any sense.

But what if the door that's closed on you was something you truly believed to be part of God's long-term plan?

How many storylines is God capable of writing? Only one per person? Or maybe He writes only one good plot for each of us, and then there are a few backups, each with a little less glory and a little more penance. What a tiny god we've sculpted for ourselves.

When I write fictional stories, I like to do it all myself, but maybe God isn't that way. Perhaps what He loves most is binding the pages, handing us the pen, and refining our rough drafts into enduring classics. But He wants us to write.

That doesn't fly with typical bumper-sticker theology, but if you've been thrown for a life-story loop you know that a lot of times God isn't going to be your pilot. That would put you passively in the passenger's seat. You don't have to sit there long before you realize Jesus isn't taking the wheel.

In the motorized conveyance metaphors, God doesn't seem to me to play the part of pilot, but of the distant voice crackling over the radio from the control tower. He's the GPS unit I haven't quite figured out how to understand yet. He's subtle, understated and sometimes frustrating, but even when He's quite clear He expects me to make the turns.

And if a Garmin can recalculate my route when I've gotten myself lost, and get me where I need to be, couldn't God do as much? Again, God help me believe.

You have more to offer than you thought you did.

For myself, I really did have a lot of my identity wrapped up in my job. I was counting on the work to be there for me, and not just in a financial sense. The pay wasn't that impressive, after all.

Stepping out of that ministry role and the mindset that it mandated (or that I mandated for myself as long as I was in it), allowed me to see some things that I couldn't (or wouldn't) before.

One of those things was the insecurity and very tiny vision of myself that had always constituted part of my "passion" for the ministry. Basically, part of the reason I had pursued it was because I thought, This is all I really have to offer.

Sure, I was able to do some good work thanks to my struggles and experiences. But when you came down to it, that's all I thought there was to me. What scared me about stepping away was that I really believed there wasn't much else I was good for.

The irony is that that belief was simultaneously crushing my spirit while I was where I thought I needed to be. My heart, mind and body were made for more, but my fear told me there was no more. It's not that the ministry itself wasn't good enough for me — I just wasn't going to let myself grow while I still hung onto it.

Now I'm outside of my self-made box. You know what? It's nice to start picturing myself in jobs and relationships I hadn't considered. Nice to have people value me as something other than the guy you can talk about "that subject" with.

It's also scary. All the risk I was avoiding previously is out here. God asks a whole lot more of me than I'd offer on your own terms. What's the payoff? Can't say that I know yet. Now that I'm letting go of my old labels and limited concepts, though, I feel like the possibilities are endless. Maybe they are.

I'm not quite home yet.

When I first moved from California out to Florida, I took pictures of the places I drove through on my way. There was this one that I took somewhere in Arizona (or New Mexico) that came out surprisingly good. I say surprisingly because I was driving when I took it.

The freeway banked up against this big mound of red rock, covered in strange holes and grooves. There was nowhere to stop, so I just rolled down my window, stuck my little digital point-and-click out there and snapped a photo. I still love that picture. The mountain is blazing red, the sky is thick with gray clouds, with just a little trickle of blue sky running through it.

I wanted to take more photos like that. I wanted to learn what made some photos so much more dynamic than others. How do you make the colors pop? How do you take crisp shots of something moving very fast?

These very elementary questions turned into a pretty serious hobby, and the answers led to taking better pictures, just like I wanted. Then when the time came to rethink my career goals, I realized I had an option to pursue, one I wouldn't have guessed even a year prior.

Just a few weeks ago I did an engagement set for a couple of good friends. Seeing them enjoy their photos, I was more satisfied then I'd felt in a long time. They posted them on Facebook, and somebody commented: "This really captures the love you two have!"

Ultimately, that's what drew me to photography. There's a story and emotion that can be captured in almost any moment. It's challenging and fun to try to capture it just right. It feeds my soul.

Maybe I'll be successful as a professional photographer. We'll see. But even if I am, I don't believe I'll be able to look at it as my ride for life. I don't think I'll ever look at a career path or even a home as Home, even though that's what I want to do.

I hate moving. I love the apartment I have now, but it's doubtful I'll be able to stay here much longer. Who knows what God will provide. But my heart is constantly restless, looking for some permanence in the things I have, the people around me, the stuff I'm doing. I want to be home. I thought I was before, but I was wrong.

Sure, I want to enjoy the good things of this life. They come from God. But He's teaching me not to try to find Home here, now.

My absolute favorite moment in all the "Chronicles of Narnia" is actually a very short exchange. It happens in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

In this particular scene, Lucy is reading a magic book when she comes upon an enchanted story. Reading it fills her with boundless wonder and joy, and she's utterly content. But alas, it is just an enchantment. When she finishes the story, she finds she can't remember it or recapture the feeling it gave to her.

Soon after, Aslan appears. She asks him, "Shall I ever be able to read that story again; the one I couldn't remember? Will you tell it to me, Aslan? Oh do, do, do."

And the Lion answers, "Indeed, yes, I will tell it to you for years and years ..."

God, help me believe.

Copyright 2010 Mike Ensley. All rights reserved.

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