Over the past couple of weeks, there have been some great, thought-provoking discussions here at BCC about women’s issues in the workplace. Implicit in all of these posts, and the resulting comment threads, is a question about how Mormon doctrine and culture influence the way women in the Church balance parental and employment obligations. These topics need far more attention and serious discussion–in society generally, but also in the Church, and especially in our individual homes. However, while the number and magnitude of difficult issues may or may not be distributed evenly across gender lines, recent events in my life have caused me to give more and more consideration to the impact that those same doctrines and cultural elements have on men in the Church.
Over the the past few months, many men I know have lost their jobs. It seems that rarely does a week go by without news that another person from the ward was laid off. Witnessing this has left me with a form of survivor’s guilt for my own good fortune in having a secure job I enjoy, great coworkers, and increasing opportunities for growth. This feeling is magnified by the fact that some of the people who have lost their jobs are dear to me–more so than they could possibly know–because they rallied around me and buoyed my spirits two years ago when I was faced with unemployment and in dire need of help for my family. The time I spent without a job was the worst stretch of my life. Now, nearly two years later, I think I can finally say I’m grateful for that nightmare of a year that was 2007, but I’m still not entirely recovered from the detrimental impact it had on my spirituality, self-confidence, and ability to communicate with God.
No two people experience unemployment in the exact same way; accordingly, I don’t expect that my experiences will resonate perfectly with everyone. However, I have noticed some themes that may be common to anyone dealing with unemployment, and I think they are worth discussing.
Pressure to Provide
First, in the Mormon culture, there is a large amount of pressure placed on women to be the primary caretakers and nurturers for their children. Whether this is good or fair is not my point–rather, my point is that the other side of this coin is that there is a tremendous amount of cultural pressure on men to be the primary “providers” for their families. While I’ve always been aware of this mentality on some level, I had no idea how deeply it was imprinted on my mind until I woke up one day and discovered to my horror and embarrassment that I was failing miserably. I had no job, no paycheck, and no prospects. In my shallow and shaky mind, this was enough to convince myself that I had unforgivably let down my wife and child, who had put their trust and confidence in me and in my abilities to provide them with everything they need. The effect this realization had on my self-esteem as a man and as a priesthood holder was frightening. Every talk in church meetings that dealt with families induced pain and guilt for me, because I had entirely convinced myself–rightly or wrongly–that I was a failure. I became emotionally withdrawn, and, while I did my best to present a courageous and cheerful attitude in public, the truth was that my heart and spirit were as broken as our bank account.
Ironically, while I have always encouraged my wife to explore any employment opportunities she desires (she is a professional photographer), the handful of photo gigs she got during this time period served to exacerbate my feelings of failure: Not only was I not taking care of my family, but my wife, who had made the choice not to work so she could be with our baby son, was now being forced out of that decision in order to help pay the bills while I sat at home filling out worthless job applications and writing never-to-be-read cover letters. I was, and am, forever grateful for those people and their recognition of my wife’s and my desire to work for aid, but it was still a difficult pill for me to swallow at the time.
Confidence in Communing with God
A second theme I’ve seen in my own life and in those around me who are facing job loss is a tendency to question past revelation.This is a dangerous position spiritually; in my experience, there are few more efficient ways of ensuring the complete loss of the companionship of the Holy Ghost than to begin questioning every prompting you’ve ever had. I knew this, but somehow I could not stop the doubts and uncertainty from invading my mind and driving out the remaining bits of faith I had in myself and in my ability to pray. In the latter stages of my fruitless job search, I described this feeling in my journal:
“My friend and I were talking the other night about what happens to a person’s mental, emotional, and spiritual state of being when they walk for thirty years believing, for reasons good or bad, that they are special—like in the God-has-a-special-plan-for-you kind of special; the you’re-going-to-knock-em-dead-at-whatever-you-do kind of special—and then you wake up one day and realize that you’re absolutely, positively, simply average. And worst of all, you’re not sure if you’re simply average because you screwed everything up—you could have been great, but you didn’t work hard enough or missed the right path to take in life because you can’t understand the Spirit—or if you’re simply average because you are simply average, and you were just deluded your whole life into thinking something else. Either way it is a painful moment and it makes you want to stop trying to be great—forget your dreams, forget your lofty goals and expectations, forget the promises you’ve made to your family, forget spending your golden years in full time service in the Church as a missionary or otherwise—just go get a regular day job and work by the sweat of your brow all the days of your life. The past months have destroyed any confidence I once had in my ability to make decisions and receive inspiration through prayer. I just feel like I really missed the mark in choosing this path, and then missed it again in wanting to remain in this path, and now I’m totally lost. My prayers are silent and I struggle (and fail) to not pray bitterly and angrily, because I have no idea if I’m being heard at all.It just sucks.”
In retrospect, I can say that I never approached a loss of faith in God generally, but my faith in His particular care and concern for me or my family took a massive blow. Even when a friend of mine who owned a couple of successful operations in Orem, Utah threw me a life-preserving job at the last second, I was ungrateful. After this offer of employment, and realizing we would have to move away from Southern California to Utah, I wrote in my journal:
“I’m still struggling internally with our whole situation—especially on the gratitude issue. The past months have been a living hell, and I’ve really struggled at times to understand exactly what it is that I’m going through here. I really didn’t see ‘Move to Orem and work for your old buddy’ in the great plan for us, and to be honest, it feels more like a punishment than a blessing. I really wanted to stay in California and find something great. Perhaps it’s just vanity, but I truly feel like I’m being told by God that I’m not good enough and so I’m being ‘sent home.’ I know that I should be full of gratitude and thanksgiving for having finally received what appears to be a life-preserver. I know that I should thank the Lord for His blessings and mercy. So why do I feel like I’ve just been slapped in the face and told that I’m not good enough for the big leagues? Maybe because I lack the proper perspective? Maybe because I lack the proper humility? Maybe because that’s the truth?”
When I was unemployed, no words made me cringe and get angry inside faster than, “It’s all going to work out.” I never had any doubts that, in the long run, things would work out somehow (they did). I knew that unemployment would not last eternity (it didn’t), and that eventually I would swallow my pride and repent of my bitterness (ongoing). I knew that my Mom would still tell me I’m special and wonderful (she does), even if society claimed otherwise (You know it!). But none of those long run realities gave me even a modicum of comfort during a short run when we had little food in our cupboards and even less money to do anything about it. When I was unemployed, I didn’t want handouts, I wanted dignity. I didn’t want sympathy, I wanted empathy. The greatest comfort was not an assurance from the Bishop that he could help us with our bills if we wanted, but rather was the willingness of that Bishop to listen for a minute one day after meetings. It wasn’t the meal the neighbors brought over, but the neighbor who sat at our table and said to me, “Yep…being unemployed really sucks.”
So it does.