Handling Transitions in Life
He thought he was set for life. A great job that he loved, a wonderful wife, the perfect living situation, a very close relationship with God, and no end in sight to the creative possibilities for his future. That all changed in the blink of an eye. The job he was perfectly fit for and had successfully done his entire life disappeared and he was left doing menial work that was unsatisfying and held little prospect for advancement. Worse, he was forced to move out of his beautiful home and relocate to a bad location. In the midst of all this change, for the first time in his life he experienced marital strife. Most perplexing and painful of all, a confused and distant relationship with the Lord made everything seem hopeless. Sound familiar? If so, you are not alone… and when Adam went through it he did not like it either.
My own personal experience with a major life change that affected my work began in early January 2010. After nearly 25 years as a church-planting missionary pastor in Southeast Asia, with only a few days’ notice my wife, children and I packed up our home in Ho Chi Minh City due to a visa problem with the communist government in Vietnam and relocated to the United States. That might not sound like such a bad thing to most people, but it was very difficult for me. I had joined the ranks of many people who have found their lives turned upside down by a major change in employment. On top of that, I had to ask myself the question of what it means to be uncertain about career change and future when God Himself is the boss.
Whether due to downsizing, restructuring, economic pressures, office politics, a poor skills fit, low productivity, personal mistakes, or world events such as the Asian Economic Crisis or September 11th, the reality of facing dismissal from a job or change in employment is an unsettling experience that most will face at least once during their career. The results inevitably touch more than one’s income and economic situation and spill over into impacting their emotional and spiritual world.
What are the challenges one faces when losing a job?
One’s sense of identity, self-worth, purpose, direction in life, goals, and competency all come into question. These issues in turn can lead to discouragement, depression and possibly hopelessness as one begins to question themselves and God. Simply knowing what to expect and understanding that these feelings are normal can be helpful in itself, so let’s look at them.
Sense of Identity
After years of productive work it is easy to confuse who I am with what I do. This is a common mistake that happens when we are more comfortable with acting as if we are a human doing rather than a human being. We can be so used to doing something that we lose sight of the bigger picture of who we are.
If we are uncertain of who we are and get our self-worth from what we do, then when there is an abrupt change in what we do our self-worth is one of the first things to suffer. We live in an age that routinely measures our worth by our productivity. When we are not working, we are not producing, and when we are not producing the next is often a feeling of worthlessness.
Purpose in life
There is a reason why American Pastor Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life sold over 30 million copies and was named among the top 100 books that changed the 20th century. People are looking for a purpose. “What am I here for?” is an ever present existential question that grows from a whisper into a roar during times of unemployment and job change. When we are working a job there is a sense of purpose, at least at the career level. When we have been career and work-oriented and have seen our life purpose primarily in those terms, the absence of employment is tantamount to the absence of purpose in life.
Direction in life
Lack of a clear purpose necessarily means uncertainty about direction. A map or GPS is useless in giving directions if I don’t know where I want to go in the first place. One of the interesting stories in Scripture that relates to this is what happened to Simon Peter after the resurrection.
Remember, he had made a dramatic job change when he left his father, his boats, and his career as a fisherman and the family business to follow Jesus. He had a new direction in life. However, in the days following his denial of Jesus he told his friends, “I am going fishing”. (John 21:3) Lacking direction in life he went back to what he knew best. And that is where Jesus met him, not with a rebuke, but with a reaffirmation of direction.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is one of the most common questions I was asked as a child. I still ask myself that question from time to time. Losing a job, especially in mid-life or beyond, can be a catalyst to questioning not only purpose and direction regarding a career, but reconsidering what is really important in life. Have I been neglecting my spouse and children? Have I failed to attend to my physical health? Am I where I thought I would be spiritually at this point in my life? These are all good questions about goals in life that can arise with the extra time to ponder life which comes during an intermission between jobs.
The question of whether I am really good at doing anything can plague the heart and mind of a person during times of unexpected occupational transition. We live in such a fast-paced world where technology changes at such breath-taking speed that it can leave a person wondering whether or not you can “teach an old dog new tricks.” Questions such as “Wasn’t I good at my job?” and “Will anyone see value in my education, skills, and experience in the future?” are common at this time.
Discouragement is a temporary passing feeling that happens when expectations are blocked and needs go unmet. It is natural to feel discouraged after losing a job. On the one hand there is grief, anger, and sometimes resentment to deal with. On the other hand, worry about prospects for future employment can turn into fear that another job may not open up. All this can leave a person feeling discouraged.
Depression is different from discouragement in that it is deeper, tends to last longer, and is more difficult to overcome. The longer one remains out of work and the less financial, social, emotional and spiritual resources one has, the greater is the likelihood that depression may set in.
Questioning myself on a spiritual level
No matter how long one has been a Christian or how close their walk with God, it seems that inevitably when things do not go according to our plan many of us are quick to blame ourselves. “Did I commit some sin?” we may ask ourselves. The answer to this question is certainly yes. We all sin. We sin not only in yielding to temptation but we sin unintentionally and without awareness many times every day. Therefore, the better question might be, “Did I lose my job because I committed some particular sin?” The answer to this is usually no. While it is true that personal sin or wrongdoing if uncovered may lead to job loss, the corollary that job loss indicates personal sin is an error in thinking and questionable theology.
“Where are You? Don’t You care? Have You abandoned me? Are You there?” These are common questions that can cloud our relationship with God and challenge our perspective on His goodness. While it is not wrong to ask these questions just as many of the Psalmists did, we need to keep in mind that our God is a God of grace. He has promised that He knows the plans He has for us, to give us a future and a hope (Jer 29:11-13).
One of the hardest things I faced going through a transitional period of life was the feeling of hopelessness when things seemed to drag on with no resolution or end in sight. When will this end? Are the best days of my life past? Will I have meaningful, productive work to do in the future? These are emotional feelings that are simply part of life for many people who lose a job.
Though it was one of the hardest times of my life, and I would not pretend to want to go through it again, my season of transitioning in my career due to things outside my control turned out to be one of fruitful personal growth. How did I deal with it while I was going through it? Three things: I focused on taking life one day at a time, staying present in each moment instead of worrying about the next, and reminding myself that God is good and He is in control. And I believe that Adam probably did the same.
After 28 years of being a missionary pastor in Southeast Asia Eric Dooley is earning his MA in counseling and will be moving back to the USA in May 2014 to begin a Doctoral Degree in Counseling Psychology… at the age of 53!