Today is day one hundred and sixty-two of my unemployment.
I search for work like a weary fisherman with a daily ritual. The morning starts with a weather check as I scan the horizons for signs of how the day will go. “What do the job boards show, today?” I ask myself, as I grab my phone, send my keyword offerings into the ether, and sift through the results. My hope is that the right incantation will draw forth something in tune with my experience, education, salary expectations, and so on.
If the weather is good, I’ll gather my gear, sail out, and cast my lines. In other words, I’ll trek from my bed to my bedside desk, boot up my computer, and throw my resume and other materials at job openings until I finish, get hungry, or am overcome by the emptiness that dogs me throughout this process.
If the weather is bad, well, then I fill the time by doing things like what I’m doing right now at this keyboard.
Searching for work, like fishing, requires a lot of patience. I cast my lines into the sea and wait for something to bite, but there are days when nothing happens. It’s tough to walk away empty-handed from a day of fishing. That’s why in fishing and unemployment alike, it’s perhaps best not to expect anything to come your way and to instead be grateful for anything that does.
But I do get biters every so often. My fishing line whines as it’s pulled out by whatever I’ve hooked, and it feels exciting and momentous. To reel in the biter, I need to work around its rhythms, to pull and be pulled by it. If I pull at the wrong time, then the line may break. If I don’t pull at the right time, then the biter will escape.
I think it’s fair to use fishing as a metaphor for job searching, but with this asterisk: I’d much rather be baiting hooks than uploading PDFs to application portals. My laptop screen is a bright, glaring gateway to career hopes and upsets. Resumes and cover letters live on my hard drive in over fifty different position-specific iterations. Interviews are done through video conferencing software that feels like staring out at people from a snow globe. Rejection comes in the form of vague emails that all sound the same: “We regret to inform you that…” or “Thank you for applying. Unfortunately…”
The hardest part about being unemployed is the guilt. The pandemic killed my job, but I still feel responsible, as if I had tried a little harder or made my worth a little more clearer, I’d still be working.
While others and I sit in our rudderless boats trying to catch what we can while staying afloat in choppy waters, others are cresting the waves and fairing much better. Picture a group of friends sitting around a fire pit one evening. It’s the week before Thanksgiving, so everyone says what he or she is thankful for.
“I’m just really thankful to still have a job, and it’s a job I really like and it pays well,” says one.
Another follows with, “I’ve saved so much money this year. I don’t have to commute, I have more time to cook, I’m not going out as much. I’m thankful for that.”
“I’m honestly making bank this year,” says another, and everyone laughs.
Then, it’s my turn. The script I’ve been writing in my head falls apart before the surging guilt in my chest. “I’m just thankful we’re all doing relatively well,” I say, and I want to point out that not everyone has been so fortunate but the fire snaps loudly and suddenly—probably an air pocket in one of the logs—and the moment is gone.
For many like me who are out of work right now, it’s likely for reasons outside our control. The world is in flux, there’s a lot of hurt going around, and very little seems certain.
Yet there are things we can control. I can choose how to react to adversity. I can acknowledge my losses, but I can also let myself be boosted by each day’s small victories, like cooking dinner for my family or waking up early to go walking or helping a friend. I can use this period of rudderless drifting and waiting to think about what’s important to me. What makes me happy? Who can I count on? Where do I want to be and how can I get there? Maybe I can’t quite be happy for myself in this moment, but I can be happy for those around me who are doing well. I can pursue my interests, I can do things I like to do and that I wouldn’t have time for if I were working.
Yes, being unemployed is a strange thing, and it’s even stranger in the year 2020, but I’m thankful I can at least work on myself.