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."