Sunday, May 16, 2010

The way out is through

Less than a week after I posted the previous essay, I got notice that my job was being terminated as of March 31. I noted this in the comments to the previous post, and three readers have subsequently posted sympathetic, helpful comments.

Since that time, a lot has happened. 

Almost immediately after my notice, I sent an email to a large group of friends letting them know that I'd been laid off again and that I was looking for other opportunities for useful work, including referrals to my private practice. A day or two later, a friend referred me to a job he had been recruited for but didn't want. It was a Big Job, a significant stretch in terms of responsibility, substantive work, and  compensation, with a large hospital not far from my home.

While I was interviewing for that job (and progressing much farther than I though I would), I got a call from the general counsel from another large health system asking me to meet with her to discuss whether I could give her some help. She is a long-time acquaintance to whom I'd sent an inquiry and resume a few months ago. This was a very attractive opportunity because it would involve working with several former colleagues and with other top-notch people in an well-respected company. It would also give me a chance to practice health law from both a provider's and payor's perspective and make use of both branches of my expertise.

Also during this time -- April -- several private practice clients sought me out and engaged me, so I had quite a lot of work to do apart from my job seeking.

To shorten the story considerably, I was one of two finalists for the Big Job but was not chosen. I accepted the position with the other organization under almost ideal circumstances: four days a week, as an employee with benefits, through at least the end of the year and perhaps a few months past that. (Furthermore, I can ride my bicycle to the office in about an hour, or catch a bus on the corner, make one transfer, and step off a train literally at the office's front door.) 

I've been working a week now, and it feels good. Already, I'm being challenged with interesting, complex work that uses my experience and expertise, and in an office with good people I've worked with before. Unfortunately, I've been suffering all week with a serious virus that has attacked my respiratory system, especially at night which interferes with my sleep and makes my waking hours miserable. (When I cough-- which is both too often and not often enough -- I feel pain in my abdominal muscles in my cranium as my brain shakes around in it. It's nasty)

I do find myself wishing this was not a temporary position and that I could count on it going on indefinitely, but if I've learned anything it is that everything is subject to change and that any security that relies on human institutions is illusory. So I'm plowing ahead one day at a time, grateful for what I have, and trying to keep my private practice going in the meantime.

I heard someone say that the only way out is through. I've found this to be one of the wisest, truest adages I know of. It is how it was in difficult passages in the past, and it's no different now. It takes a lot of energy -- it is a lot easier to be on cruise control than to have to be awake all of the time. But I know, as much as I resist it, that being awake is the only way to be. 

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Life. Vocation. Work. Job.

This post started as a comment on Emily Rose Neeson's thoughtful post at on Christian vocation, but grew too long for that place.

I was laid off my previous job (after six years there) in December 2008. It was part of a reduction in force. I saw it coming for months. I wasn’t bitter about it: I was the guy I would have laid off if I was in my boss’s shoes, so at I didn’t have any feelings of unfairness.

It was a hassle, but it was also a relief. The job was well-paid, clean, safe,  and was a mere 15 minute bike ride from home, but I had no passion for it; I had a lot more to offer than the job asked for, and I felt wasted much of the time. I helped others by helping those in the large organization help those who helped others, so the connection between my work and its value was attenuated and often invisible.

So I didn't miss the work, though I missed and do miss my relationships with the people there, many of whom have also since been made redundant. Fortunately, we had saved an amount equivalent to about a year’s worth of expenses (not counting anticipated college tuition), and getting six months of severance pay, followed by unemployment compensation gave us a temporary financial cushion and I didn't feel panic, though the financial crisis and the recession that resulted (and which persists today) did shake my confidence quite a bit.

During 2009 I did a lot of thinking, exploring, relaxing into the question of vocation, and work. I explored a new field (nonprofit leadership), took a course in it at a local university (paid for by the taxpayers), and looked for opportunities in that new field. But times were hard and the market frozen. I did land a part-time opportunity that I was an excellent fit for, but then the  work was deferred indefinitely. So I kept thinking, mulling, exploring, dreaming.

It didn’t take me too long to conclude that at the deepest level I did not want to be employed, at least not full-time and not by a large organization. I did want to work, though, and to have that work provide me with the money I needed to live, and also to leave me the time to live.

So I started a home-based business – a law practice, focusing on estate planning (wills, trusts, etc.). I got the idea through some volunteer work and the suggestion of a friend. I found that I enjoyed the work: it was concretely helpful to people; it let me work directly with them rather than through an organization; there was a need for what I did and an underserved market (primarily middle aged, middle class people who haven’t planned for the care of their children and property when they become disabled or die and who can afford to pay a fair fee for basic services but don’t require complicated and expensive tax planning); the field was relatively new and challenging for me and I was in learning-mode which always makes me high; and it had the realistic potential for being sufficiently remunerative to support my family and the rest of my social obligations.

While I felt strongly that this is what I wanted to do, I was aware of the practical challenges and dangers. So I was never able to  -- I never let myself -- jump in with both feet. I told others then that I was wading into the ocean of self-employment and that I was, progressively, ankle-, knee-, then chest-deep into it. But I never let the water lift me entirely out of touch with the land and I kept looking for more traditional opportunities. This perhaps was a mistake that displayed a lack of faith and prevented me from giving the business my best energy; but I’m cautious at heart and it’s what I did.

The practice went OK at first with a steady if slow stream of paying clients. I was learning the field and found that learning it was a lot of fun (except for the tax aspect, which in estate planning is like saying you like surgery but for the blood), and I was exercising my right-brain people skills more strenuously and successfully as well as my left-brain analytical skills. I loved being independent and flexible. I made mistakes and learned from them. I found a few colleagues and fellow travelers down the same road. My volunteer work increased. I was exercising more. I felt proud to be producing rather than consuming wealth. It looked positive.

But, alas, time and nerve ran out. The practice stalled in the fall. Having to pay for our health insurance benefits under COBRA, even with the 65% federal subsidy, was unsustainable and became the brick that broke the camel’s back. In addition to that big fact, there were inner misgivings, too. I began to feel self-indulgent, embarrassed that others were subsidizing my project –working people who were paying for two-thirds of my health insurance and unemployment compensation, my children whose hopes of attending college were made uncertain, donors to the college who subsidized my son's attendance there, charities I could no longer support at previous levels, a loving and supportive spouse whose own plans and dreams were in jeopardy because of my lack of income, and so forth.

Eventually, these and other practical considerations, led me back into the world of being employed, in a temp position at first, and, as of January 20, full-time in a “permanent” (the word should always be qualified by quotation marks) position with our state governmenl. It’s a fine job with good people, though it pays 40% of my previous salary, requires 25% more hours in the office, and uses maybe 50% of my talent. If this sounds like whining, I’m not. I’m grateful. I repeat these facts to remind myself that I had it pretty good before and that now I’m simply working like most of the rest of my country works, though even now I enjoy certain benefits and some measure (however fragile) of economic security (i.e., a traditional pension) that many others don’t enjoy. And where is it written that one's work has to be comfortable and fulfilling?

I have never during my years of droneship forgotten that the workplace is part of creation, too, as fallen as the meetinghouse or the courthouse, full of broken and not-so-broken people, and a place for ministry. I do it in my small ways -- being unfailingly polite to high and low alike; providing honest and high quality work, no matter how mundane or unappreciated; cheerfully accepting criticism even from those unqualified to give it; making and strengthening the invisible fabric of social relationships, etc.

But is this new job my vocation? My calling? It is certainly part of it, but it’s obvious to me it isn’t the whole calling, or even pretty close. It isn't what anyone (especially me) would put on my gravestone. The job simply provides me with the basic sustenance to live and continue my volunteer work at meeting and in my community (though the reduction in “free” time and the need to earn extra money in evenings and weekends is making me feel overly stretched at the moment; something is going to have to give, I’m afraid). Even though we’ve had to half our support of some of the nonprofits we love, the job lets me do what we are doing.

Having let go, at least for the moment, of the ideal of being self-employed, I’m reverting back to my old attitude expressed in the title and refrain of a song by Charlie King: "My life is more than my work, and my work is more than my job."

Monday, January 18, 2010

Thinking of Dr King and Jesus

In meeting yesterday, I realized that Dr King has been gone for 41 years this coming April. He was 39 when he was murdered. He's been gone longer than he was here.

Then, in this morning's Star Tribune, there was a very good op-ed piece by Paul Gaston headlined "He had a dream, but there was more." In it, he reminds us that Dr King was a prophet for radical, biblical economic and political justice as well as a dreamer of love and peace. Dr King's diagnosis of the sickness of American society and the radical nature of the cure was much deeper and more pungent than the vapid "can't we all get along?" caricature of his message that predominates in the mainstream. This emasculation of Dr King's ministry began during his lifetime, such as when he was castigated for opposing the American war against the Vietnamese as "counterproductive" to the civil rights struggle, but it has gotten worse since his death.

Gaston heaps appropriate disgust with people like George Will, Rush Limbaugh, and Newt Gingrich -- people who opposed everything Dr King stood for while he was alive -- who selectively quote Dr King's words in an effort to pervert his ministry.

Gaston's point isn't novel, but it is a welcome reminder.

But what hit me today was how what has happened to Dr King and his ministry is exactly what it looks like was done to Jesus and his gospel in the years following his death. That is, the more we learn about the historical Jesus the more we understand him to be a prophet of radical political and economic reordering of society as well as a self-sacrificing, gentle preacher of love and repentance forgiveness.

The Jesus many of us learned about in Sunday School is a sanitized, feminized Jesus whose spiritual message has been torn from its concrete social milieu, resulting in a message that may comfort the afflicted but does little to afflict the comfortable. (This might have been the developmentally appropriate image of Jesus to teach to children in Sunday School, but it is appallingly inappropriate for adults.) Such an image of Jesus makes his crucifixion into punishment of a religious heretic rather than a political seditionist. He was both.

A core conclusion of the Jesus scholars is that Jesus's followers interpreted and applied his message -- and recorded it in the books of the gospels -- in a way that met the immediate needs of the post-Easter Christian community and cannot necessarily be trusted as a comprehensive record of Jesus's actual life and ministry. I do not accept the Jesus scholar's conclusions uncritically, but after seeing how Dr King's life and message has been selectively remembered, I am more sensitive to how that process might have worked after Jesus's death.

My point isn't so much that the Jesus portrayed in the gospels is wrong or inaccurate as much as it is unbalanced and selective. There is plenty of evidence of Jesus's radical social and economic critique in the record to indicate that that, too, was a central part of his ministry. To be more accurate, then, I should say that the imbalance and selectivity comes from mainstream interpretations of the gospels rather than the documents themselves.

Fortunately, the comprehensive documentary record of Dr King's life is far more likely to be preserved and easily available, but the mainstream interpretation of that record still drives the public mythology to distort Dr King's life and message into something it most certainly was not.

Similarly, those of us who are inspired by Dr King's political and economic message cannot ignore the fact that he came to that message as a minister of the Christian Gospel and a committed disciple of Jesus Christ; his prophetic social, political, and economic words and actions were the direct and necessary results of that primary commitment.

But even if it were not present, I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men -- for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?

(from "Beyond Vietnam," delivered at Riverside Church, New York, April 4, 1967 -- a year to the day before Dr King's death.)

So just as Christians have to be careful of over-spiritualizing Jesus at the loss of his social critique, Americans must be careful not to secularize Dr King at the loss of his religious core.

(Lest there be any misunderstanding: I am not saying that Dr King was the incarnation of the Living God in the way that I believe Jesus was. I am saying that the message of each -- which requires radical commitment and a willingness to die to this world -- has been hijacked to rationalize and defend a profoundly sick status quo.)

Two typos corrected and images reformatted 1-19-2010

Friday, September 18, 2009

Five rules of the world; or, Show up for your life and don't be ashamed

I recently got involved with Facebook, for a lot of reasons, which has kept me away from here. One of the reasons is Facebook's encouragement of short, quick pieces. But here's an excerpt from Anne Lamotte's wonderful little book, Operating Instructions that was too long for a status update. The book is essentially a journal of the first year of her life as a mother to her son, Sam. I liked it very much, and it's so typical of Lamotte's wonderful writing. (I've loved hearing her on the radio for years, but have begun to read her only in the last few weeks.)

It's a short chapter dated November 4, and is on page 100:
I had a session over the phone with my therapist today. I have these secret pangs of shame about being single, like I wasn't good enough to get a husband. Rita reminded me of something I'd told her once, about the five rules of the world as arrived at by this Catholic priest named Tm Weston. The first rule, he says, is that you must not have anything wrong with you or different. The second one is that if you do have something wrong with you, you must get over it as soon as possible. The third rule is that if you can't get over it, you must pretend that you have. The fourth rule is that if you can't even pretend that you have, you shouldn't show up. You should stay home, because it's hard for everyone else to have you around. And the fifth rule is that if you are going to insist on showing up, you should at least have the decency to feel ashamed.
So Rita and I decided that the most subversive, revolutionary thing I could do was to show up for my life and not be ashamed.

Saturday, August 08, 2009