Friday, November 24, 2006

I Hear The Whistle Blowing

Being stuck in a job where one is belittled and threatened with job loss on a regular basis is a really unpleasant experience. It's like being tied to the train tracks in the path of an oncoming train. One can hear that whistle blowing as the train gets nearer and nearer, but one has no ability to stop the train or avoid the collision. All one can do is hope that the train is further away than it sounds.

As comparisons go, I think that's a pretty good comparison. But it isn't really fully adequate.

When being hit by a real train, it's reasonable to suppose that one's moment of actual pain would be mercifully brief, provided that it was a direct hit. One might suppose that death would be instant, and that one wouldn't be alive long enough to really experience any pain. It seems reasonable to assume that the anticipation and the fear would be the worst part of the experience.

With a job loss, there is nothing particularly merciful or brief about it. Instead of bringing relief, the actual moment in which one is told that one has been fired merely initiates a long process in which one repeatedly does one's best to smile and act as optimistic as possible during job interviews, even though one is dying inside. It doesn't help that one is expected to refrain from criticizing one's former employers, even in situations where one was often treated with little or no consideration and respect.

It gets harder to stay optimistic the longer the job search process takes. And the older one gets, the longer the job search process seems to take. During that time, funds shrink (even if one is fortunate enough to qualify for unemployment insurance), and one's self esteem and hope for the future diminish with every incident in which one has to plead for one's landlord to be patient and to abstain from evicting one from one's home long enough for one to secure another job and get back on one's feet again.

During times of unemployment, one basically is not allowed to have a real life. Every moment spent in some endeavor other than looking for work is filled with guilt. That includes time spent sleeping. Yet, sleep offers the only relief from the constant awareness of one's predicament. With no job to go to, it's very hard to get motivated to make do with five or six hours of sleep when one's body really needs eight hours or more.

Somehow, it seems that one always gets a job at the end of the process, but the road leading to that event is often long, twisted and rocky. What makes it worse is that one is often forced at the end of the road to take yet another mindnumbingly boring job which is not much better (if any) from one's previous job.

How does one get into such a position? It's easy. No dastardly villain is necessary. All it takes is to be poor and powerless, lacking adequate resources with which to pursue the type of job for which one is really suited. Which, in my cases, is no job at all. For most of my life, I have tried to fit into a variety of job situations, but in most of those jobs, to a greater or lesser degree, I have felt like the proverbial square peg in a round hole.

I am not by any means averse to hard work. But what I long for is a "job" in which the work, no matter how hard, is so enjoyable that it doesn't really feel like work. I know that I have many viable, marketable skills. There are people in this world who are able to support themselves doing things they love. There are people who say hello to the boss every morning when they look into the mirror. Why can't I be one of those people?

Sometimes, talent can be a blessing. Sometimes, though, it can feel like a curse. It would be easy in some ways for me to resign myself to mind numbing work where job security was a distant illusion and the pay was just barely enough to pay the bills, if I had no other conceivable options, and if I didn't know that I had abundant untapped potential. But that's not the case. I long to work in a field which makes the most of my abilities as a musician, writer, artist, photographer and more. I am daily working on personal goals with that objective in mind. But every time I seem to make some progress, it seems that I suffer a financial setback which causes me to lose ground. To say that it's frustrating is an extreme understatement.

I was once accused by a pastor of being "lazy". This, despite the fact that I had only been unemployed (after being fired for failing to meet a sales quota) for a very short time.

Prior to that, the aforementioned pastor knew good and well that I'd been working 12 hours a day at a job that barely paid minimum wage. I'd spent another 4 hours a day commuting. (It was a 2 hour bus ride to and from work.) All told, I'd been spending 16 hours a day either working or riding to and from work. How that qualified as "lazy" was a mystery to me. Apparently, this particular pastor wasn't satisfied that I was spending virtually all of my waking hours in work related activities. He thought I ought to be giving up my sleep as well.

In situations like that, one begins to feel like an orange being squeezed by a huge vise, long after all of the juice is all gone.

But don't dare complain in a situation like that. Oh, no! You'll likely be accused of "whining" by people (including some so-called Christian leaders) whose personal dictionaries do not include words like "compassion" and "empathy". They'll accuse you of holding a "pity party". They'll let you know that they have no interest in your problems or your life. And then they'll expect you to joyfully put money in their collection plates. Just don't count on getting any of it back during times of crisis.

Of course, there will be exceptions. You will occasionally get lucky, or blessed, and find someone who actually practices what he or she preaches. Someone who knows that when a person is down and out, that person needs a helping hand, not a kick in the teeth. But that will be the exception, not the rule. Or at least, it has been for me.

Getting older stinks in some ways. The hair thins and then disappears. The teeth and other parts of the body begin to show their age, especially if one cannot afford regular medical or dental care. Stairs that used to be easy to climb become difficult to climb. The names of old friends increasingly show up in the obituaries.

If one has little or nothing in the form of a financial "nest egg", as is often the case when one is living from one paycheck to the next, then growing old can also be cause for fear. What if the "inevitable" job at the end of the job search process stops being so inevitable? What if one's landlord runs out of patience altogether? What if no one wants to hire one because one has accrued so many bad experiences that it's harder to get a good job reference than it is to pull the teeth of a saltwater crocodile? For these and other reasons, growing old leaves a lot to be desired.

But old age can also be a blessing, if one believes that an eternity in heaven awaits those who continue to do their best to serve and obey God in spite of this massive pile of dung known as life on earth.

Every passing day brings a person of faith one step closer to the arrival of another kind of train. Curtis Mayfield once sang the following song:

People get ready, there's a train a-comin'.
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'
Don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.

I once attended a philosophy discussion group at a local secular bookstore. I may have been the only Christian in attendance. Each time they met, they would write down interesting questions they wanted to discuss. Then those questions would be read aloud, and the group would vote for the topic they wished to discuss. At the meeting I attended, someone asked, "Will science ever discover a cure for death? Would that be a desirable thing?"

What a question! That's like asking a person sentenced to prison for life whether or not that person would like to stay in that prison forever. When it was my turn to speak, I said that an eternity here on earth would be a curse, not a blessing, unless solutions could be found to all of the other problems which make life on earth such a miserable experience at times. And I did not believe that such a thing was possible, because we lived in a fallen world which was irreparably tainted with selfishness and sin.

Yes, life here on earth can sometimes be enjoyable, but even those who are relatively blessed in this life are constantly being reminded of just how far this life falls short of what it was meant to be. In this world, there are the "haves" and the "have nots". If you're a "have not", you have numerous problems to deal with, and many of those problems (although not all by any means) are related to financial needs. But being a "have" isn't necessarily much better. If you're a "have", you can't pick up a newspaper or turn on the television news without being reminded that others are suffering. How can you respond to such knowledge? You can either suffer with and for people who suffer, or you can ignore their pleas for help until your soul becomes dead and you become a hollow wraith instead of a man or a woman.

In terms of real pleasure, both of those alternatives leave a lot to be desired. Most people minimize the discomfort by trying to find a balance between those two extremes, but that isn't easy. It shouldn't be necssary. In heaven, it won't be necessary.

In the short term, I hear a train whistle. It tells me that I may not be at my current job much longer. It tells me that leaving that job may be an involuntary experience on my part. I'm not looking forward to the arrival of that train. I hope that I'm mistaken about the inevitability of its arrival.

But that other train? That's a different story. I'm waiting for a train which is bound for glory. The sound of that train whistle is sweet music in my ears. All of the hypocritical preachers and uncompassionate bosses in the world cannot diminish my faith in the Lord who commands that train. I know in whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that He is able to keep my soul until that day.

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