Thursday, 26 September 2013

Unemployment and Identity; A Meditation

'I'm not working,' elicits all sorts of responses from the kindly, 'Oh, but I'm sure you do work very hard,' to the quizzical look that says, 'Could she be over 60?...but I daren't ask.' If you are unwaged it seems you have to explain yourself in ways that you don't if you have a job. I've quite enjoyed the game of how to fill in the blank. It truthfully varies from, 'I'm in between jobs,' to 'I'm writing a book,' and 'I'm doing some teaching, yes, theology, no that's nothing to do with trees, it's about God,' or 'Well I used to be a nurse a long time ago.' Or sometimes, 'No I don't work and I don't know what the future holds.' You can range, at will, and according to mood, from the sublime heights of grand sounding projects to complete deflation and hopelessness. Any trace of depression has an interesting effect on people - they either back off very hurriedly or else wade in with suggestions of jobs and voluntary work you aren't remotely qualified to do, attributing to you skills you don't recognise.

Then there's the question of resources. Suddenly you are better resourced in terms of time than you have ever been, you have a different range of choices and you're much less well off in terms of petrol, money and office equipment. This means you can shape your life quite differently. At times, this feels like a wonderful opportunity; at others, it feels like a bleak imposition that cuts you off from the things you were used to. There's the joy of discovering colleagues are now friends and the sadness of losing contact with others suddenly and completely. I'm only too aware that, had I given up my job due to ill-health (which I didn't), I'd also be coming to terms with a change in body image, levels of disability and, possibly, expectations of longevity. We moved house so there was a dislocation in terms of friends, neighbours and familiar places.

There's also the whole thing about what to call yourself. That might seem relatively trivial but it leads to a lot of quite comical confusion. Since I don't use my husband's name professionally (the advice was, don't change your name or you lose all your publications and your professional continuity) I'm used to arriving at events and being unable to remember which surname I booked in with. I'm also used to not quite knowing whether to call myself Ms or Mrs when using my own name. I often take comfort in the words of the bank manager who looked hard at me and said, 'Madam you can have as many names as you like as long as you don't use any of them fraudulently.' But since stepping out of ministry temporarily I've discovered a new complication. Given the vast array of titles different sorts of clergy use, and given the kinds of roles I've had in the past, I now get addressed in at least six different ways. I don't mind, but it seems to cause other people embarrassment. Personally, I go with the Quaker option. 'Janet Henderson' will do nicely - we have names for a reason and Christians, especially, might as well use Christian names.

Anyone who's been made redundant, resigned suddenly from a job, retired or given up 'work' to have a baby or look after a relative will know exactly what I'm talking about. It can be a shock. You can view it all as a glorious opportunity but it inevitably brings with it an element of bereavement and may well tip you into depression, loss of self-worth or apathy. 'Not working' in our society is a place of great liminality, neither one thing nor another, since, patently, everyone works to keep themselves (and others) going whether they are paid and recognised for it or not. The sense of liminality is increased if you don't know how long the state is likely to last. If you're actively planning a return to work, you can find yourself on a roller-coaster of eager anticipation and dashed hopes, making it difficult to settle down and probably making you difficult to live with for those around who are trying to get on with their lives and lend some stability to the situation.

All this inevitably leads you to the existential question, 'Who am I?' Who am I now that this has changed or that has gone? Who am I now that people react to me differently or don't react? Who am I now that my role has gone? I guess for clergy this can be particularly poignant as we generally continue to attend and be part of church even though our role has changed. 

God sees who we are without all this paraphernalia. Since when did God identify us by the work we do or the role we play? God generally calls people for some mysterious reason best known to God and often for a quality God alone sees in them. Abram has faith, Isaiah is ready to confess his sins, Moses is not identified as coming from a royal background and therefore being fitted for leadership, but as someone who is a bit tongue-tied and not very articulate. Hagar is an outcast with no pretensions. Even the fisher-disciples are told that their understanding of fishing is going to be re-configured. Jesus  saw in Peter a rock (not a church leader) and in James and John, the sons of thunder, fire (not a church leader and a theologian.)

"Who am I?' This is the question of those who feel themselves stripped of role or possessions or title or reputation or home or health and it is a profoundly God-ward question. It's the question that is met by the God who proclaims, or more likely whispers, 'I am who I am.' God doesn't define or reveal God's self through status or role or anything you can see or possess. The lesson of spiritual maturity is surely that God meets us most profoundly when we are stripped down and vulnerable just as Christ was stripped naked and vulnerable in the incarnation. And where God meets us, we are released into God's freedom, no longer held captive by society's categories of meaning. 

"Who am I?'
'My child, you are the one who will go for me.'

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