Commentary: Don't say these things to your unemployed friends
By Robert Ingoglia It was probably an attitude formed during eight years of graduate school that led me to pompously stride, nose suitably upturned, through the bookstore aisles stacked with "Dummy's Guide" titles. But whether it was the reality of unemployment, increasing wisdom, or the more prosaic admission that the people writing these books actually made money from their writing, my attitude began to change.
By Robert Ingoglia
It was probably an attitude formed during eight years of graduate school that led me to pompously stride, nose suitably upturned, through the bookstore aisles stacked with "Dummy's Guide" titles. But whether it was the reality of unemployment, increasing wisdom, or the more prosaic admission that the people writing these books actually made money from their writing, my attitude began to change.
Suffering through the well-wishing consolations of family and friends "helping" me deal with my job loss convinced me of the need for - if not a book - then at least a few honest words on what not to say to those who are currently un(der)employed.
Consolations on the loss of one's job fall into two broad categories: trite expressions of encouragement and more subtle arguments that are more insidious, ultimately unconvincing, and to be studiously ignored. The classic anodyne expression: "One door closes and another one opens," is perhaps the worst of the folksy consolations.
Loss of employment - whether expected or not - was not a sought after goal. If your friend left one job for another (presumably better) one, he was the agent opening this metaphorical passageway. However, the key idea is whether your friend has control over his life - being unexpectedly thrown out of work rarely reinforces one's sense of control. Not to over analyze this stock phrase (but I am an academic and I cannot stop doing this), its wording also suggests that another opportunity will present itself, again removing the job seeker from an active role in changing his life. None of this makes an unemployed person feel better.
But a silly aphorism is more tolerable than the second variety of consolations. Here, a stock expression is replaced by arguments meant to both console and advise. Upon my job loss I was counseled almost innumerable times to relax and collect unemployment - after all, the money was mine, wasn't it? Only a person who has never been unemployed could see the words relax and unemployment as a suitable syntactical pairing.
Much more problematic is the notion that I should take back what was mine based on the assumption that my layoff was unwarranted (indisputable) so I should not feel bad about wringing from the system every last cent I was owed (debatable). Before proceeding, I want to make clear my unequivocal support for unemployment benefits. This said, I still felt badly about receiving unemployment. Here, once again, the issue is control over one's life. I still love my profession (teaching). I had a vocation, a "calling," and no amount of unemployment insurance was going to replace what had been taken from me by my layoff.
There is also the honest admission that the benefits I received were only partially mine. I am not the only person who paid into the "system," and remain convinced that I am still a part of something larger. No matter how mawkish this sounds, I still hope to get back to full-time work so that I can continue to pay into a system that helps my fellow citizens who are not as fortunate as I in obtaining an advanced education.
The "sit back and enjoy your benefits" consolation is most often conjoined with the advice to use my enforced leisure to "reinvent" myself. This likewise falls into the category of officious and unwelcome advice. No intelligent person, especially an educator, could oppose lifelong learning, but the idea of "reinventing" - actually re-marketing - oneself is distasteful least of all because the terminology smacks of Madison Avenue. The implicit assumption is that I had somehow fallen behind the times, outside of the inexorable upward curve along which society was progressing. My layoff was, following this "logic," a golden opportunity to embrace the "invisible hand" (following Adam Smith) whose painful but deft touch would nudge me back into the upward track (following neoliberal Social Darwinism) by forcing me to update my superannuated skills.
My reaction is this: "Perhaps what I should really do is reinvent a society which eschews discarding individuals while assuaging the consciences of the discarders by throwing the unemployed negligible amounts of money and copious quantities of putatively impartial rationalizations."
This segues into the most distasteful of the consolations: the idea that my unemployment is part of some larger metaphysical plan that in the long term will reveal itself as a good thing. This advice has, of course, a venerated lineage and those tempted to argue thus should read how Voltaire's Candide demolished the ridiculosity of Dr. Pangloss' similar line of reasoning. But one must tread carefully here, because this notion often has its basis in religious thought and the folks offering this advice are both genuinely trying to be helpful and deeply sincere in their beliefs. Its lack of consolation, for me, is best explained by a brief story about my mentor - both a deeply religious and astoundingly intelligent man. He had attended a conference on the Holocaust during which a discussion session began to revolve around the question "Why had God permitted this to happen?"
My mentor, finding both his religious values and intelligence stretched to the breaking point, finally shifted the focus of the discussion by proposing the real question: "Why had Man permitted this to happen?" Is his response not the proper one to those who see (or want to see) some larger significance in another person's hardship?
The pain accompanying my job loss is real, compounded by a realistic assessment that all may not turn out well. I deeply appreciate those around me trying to help. But with much of my dignity stripped away, at least allow me to ask those trying to help to think before they speak. A sincere discussion of academic unemployment, its causes, consequences, and remedies, is much more consoling than silly aphorisms and poorly thought out rationalizations.
Robert Ingoglia is a writer in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. firstname.lastname@example.org