Friday, March 18, 2011

The Soul of Unemployment


Reading an editorial by Paul Krugman this morning got me thinking. Here's a taste of it:

"More than three years after we entered the worst economic slump since the 1930s, a strange and disturbing thing has happened to our political discourse: Washington has lost interest in the unemployed.

Jobs do get mentioned now and then — and a few political figures, notably Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, are still trying to get some kind of action. But no jobs bills have been introduced in Congress, no job-creation plans have been advanced by the White House and all the policy focus seems to be on spending cuts.

So one-sixth of America’s workers — all those who can’t find any job or are stuck with part-time work when they want a full-time job — have, in effect, been abandoned.

It might not be so bad if the jobless could expect to find new employment fairly soon. But unemployment has become a trap, one that’s very difficult to escape. There are almost five times as many unemployed workers as there are job openings; the average unemployed worker has been jobless for 37 weeks, a post-World War II record." (Read the whole thing here)

Reading this reminded me of a man I provided counseling to recently. It was a typical day at work for me. This man had lost his will to live and recently tried to kill himself. He had grabbed the sharpest object he could find and sawed his wrist while sitting on a beach on a cold rainy night. By the time he got to that beach he had lost his job, his home, and recently the couch he'd been allowed to crash on by a friend. He had nowhere to go, no money, no food, no hope. But what bothered him the most was not having a job. It was the one thing I had no power to give.

Research suggests that unemployment can have profoundly negative effects on mental health. Here are some examples from one study:

"The research is based on interviews with 2,170 people, 16 to 25 years old, and shows that young people that have been jobless for at least a year, have twice the risk of harming themselves or of suffering from panic attacks.

Also, it seems that half of young people with no job say that unemployment has caused them self harm and insomnia. About one in six young people believe that unemployment is as stressful as a family crisis and 12% say that they have nightmares because of it.
"

As I walked with this man through his personal hell, what struck me was that being unemployed was not just about money for him. It was about meaning. This man was telling me that he did not know who he was anymore or why he was on the planet. I was reminded of commentary by the Universal House of Justice on material suffering:

"It is not merely material well- being that people need. What they desperately need is to know how to live their lives -- they need to know who they are, to what purpose they exist, and how they should act towards one another; and, once they know the answers to these questions they need to be helped to gradually apply these answers to everyday behaviour. It is to the solution of this basic problem of mankind that the greater part of all our energy and resources should be directed."
(The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 283)

Apart from apparently neglecting the problem of unemployment, I think that the politicians may be missing the meaning (some would say 'spiritual') dimension of this problem. Commenting on the spiritual reality of work, Baha'u'llah has written:

"It is enjoined upon every one of you to engage in some form of occupation, such as crafts, trades and the like. We have graciously exalted your engagement in such work to the rank of worship unto God, the True One." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 26)

If work is worship, widespread, long-term unemployment may prove to have mental and spiritual consequences for individuals and society that deserve serious consideration. It should become a part of national discourse about this problem. Certainly the circumstances contributing to the unemployment crisis arose from a catastrophic lack of spirituality:

"The principal cause of this suffering, which one can witness wherever one turns, is the corruption of human morals and the prevalence of prejudice, suspicion, hatred, untrustworthiness, selfishness and tyranny among men."
(The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 283)

10 comments:

  1. Anonymous12:43 PM

    A Very good article and insight to unemployment,especially work is worship and being unemployed creates spiritual crisis. being unemployed for long periods people lose hope,in society.community and feel unworthy and lost as in the United Kingdom many people have been unemployed for up 30years or more and cannot see away out. So the whole system work needs to be changed not only Profit based but people based

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  2. Thank you for a hard-hitting and insightful post, Philippe. The dimension of meaning in relation to one's work, whether one is employed or self-employed, is obscured by the economic dimension and political rhetoric. Governments believe they can either do or not do something about the economics of employment, but the meaning that being of service, of being able to contribute to the good of others through one's work escapes them.

    It's not just a wage that people need - although that is important - it is having a place in society that supports and confirms human flourishing and dignity.

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  3. Anonymous9:17 AM

    This is a very well written and timely piece. You have chosen a subject that is at the heart of the social problems we are experiencing all over the world. Meaningful work as a means of supporting oneself and family should not be left to chance. It is the basic foundation of all social policy. The fact that we accept an unemployment rate and do not even count the people who are no longer looking for work in our statistics is a sign of how much our society has deteriorated. Statistics are used as smoke and mirrors by the political system as a way to manipulate their population. These tactics are definitely not founded in spiritual principles. Work done in the spirit of service is akin to worship of the Creator.

    Having gone through periods of under, self and lack of employment situations over the course of my life, and contrasting it to now having a satisfying career, I think that work is truly a necessity. Work is the nucleus of our self-worth and ability to build a healthy civilization. Please continue to post on this topic as there are so many aspects to explore.

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  4. Anonymous10:42 AM

    My husband was unemployed intermittently for five years. He went from managing high level IT projects for global companies to not being able to find an entry level job at a big box store. If it wasn't for his strong Faith in God, I don't know how he would have handled his situation. Our children found the situation extremely stressful and it impacted their view of the world, not always in a positive way. One of our children left college to get a job to support herself rather to relieve some of the financial burden on us. That was hard for my husband who wanted to provide for his family. I stayed in a highly stressful work situation with a bully boss because I had little other choices. We couldn't sell our home because our mortgage was cheaper then rentals.

    My husband lost his jobs solely because of the lack of spirituality in the decision-making of his company's corporate leaders. In order to boost company quarterly profits which their bonuses were based upon, they cut staff. Their quarterly profits were down because of poor decisions made by these same corporate leaders. They made poor decisions and rewarded themselves with big compensation packages. It's interesting to note that one of these companies was a 'too big to fail bank'.

    If we look at the increasing income disparity in the US, it is obvious to me that there is plenty of money for job creation. But, there is little incentive on the part of the 0.01% who control the money to let go any of their wealth. It is this selfishness and greed that is causing our unemployment. For example, there is a need for green technology if not for global warming then for public health reasons. There is an abuse of power by corporate leaders who use their money and influence to prevent green technology companies from growing in order to maintain their profits in the oil and gas production and sales. If there was an awareness and acceptance that we are stewards of the earth on the part of these same corporate leaders, they would invest their profits in research and development in green technologies. It is not a lack of capital that is causing unemployment but the use of the money. It is being hoarded by people who lack the spiritual insight to understand their true purpose of being alive.

    Unemployment is a by-product of our business and political leadership. Instead of wanting to serve their communities and countries, they are
    consumed by their worship of money and power. If you look at our country, we have people without access to affordable health care, our infrastructure in in disrepair, and the number of individuals living under poverty is growing yet people continue to want tax cuts. Why? It's my money. There's a lack of awareness that we are interconnected and we need to take care of each other.

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  5. Thanks to everyone who has shared their thoughts on this important topic so far. I especially appreciate the personal stories. I hear it everyday and it is heartbreaking and frustrating. We are in desperate need of spiritual and moral leadership from both government and corporations. It seems that this topic has hit a nerve and I definitely intend to continue to write about it. Keep the comments coming!

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  6. Chris Wenger4:07 PM

    Thank you so much for addressing this often ignored issue. My husband has been out of work for over three years and we have three small children. I am tired of the unemployed being maligned and portrayed as lazy and undeserving of assistence. People are not receiving extended benefits because they are lazy. There really are no jobs out there. My husband has had dozens of interviews and no real offers. It is my strong belief in God's grace that keeps me going. Thanks again and God bless you! Please keep writing about this topic. I'm glad someone notices.

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  7. Anonymous10:26 AM

    Hi there! I've been reading your blog for a couple of weeks and this post really resonated with me. I've been out of a job for two years now and I can completely relate to your client. I have been an active Baha'i my whole life, I've always worked or served my community full time, and when I lost my job (I was living in California at the time) I just spiraled down into a terrible depression. It was awful. I lost my self-esteem, felt like hurting myself, lost my desire to live. As a Baha'i, I'd been taught to work hard, to make positive contributions to the world in which I lived and show a radiant face. Now, I was deprived of the opportunity to do this, I was despondent. I felt like my life was useless. I went on countless job interviews, worked awful awful short term jobs.

    Things are finally looking up. But I almost got stuck in a rut of depression and only willpower got me out, aided with Faith.

    On a side note, I found this post, on the exact same wavelength as yours on another Baha'i Blog and I liked the conjunction of both of your view points, and the excerpts you both chose.

    http://gracewisdomjustice.wordpress.com/2011/03/19/destiny/

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  8. Bahá'u'lláh puts a high emphasis on work because he declares in several tablets that work performed to the best of one's ability is EQUAL to the Worship of God...

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  9. I am doing some research and came across your article. It great having articles like yours out there for the public to view.



    Thanks,
    Dom
    searching for a job

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  10. Anonymous1:58 AM

    This article and everyone's comments have really given me some hope on the unemployment situation. As a college graduate that hasn't found a steady job in over a year, I've struggled with depression, anxiety, insomnia and low self esteem for awhile now. I have searched through the writings to find comforting words that "This too shall pass", but I now understand the spiritual and mental implications involved in being unemployed. There is a very fine line between having faith and being completely terrified of what comes next. I can honestly say that prayer and meditation have kept me sane, but reading articles like these, helps me to stay positive about the future.

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