The two million adults who will lose unemployment benefits this month have been on my mind. Many of them step into a void each morning that comes from not having a job to go to, people to work with, and an external structure to organize their day. I replay their stories, telling myself that if they can face that void bravely, so can I.
Until a year ago, I, too, had somewhere to go each day, work that brought me into contact with other people, semi-tangible ways to bring good into the world, a public role and presence. I was surrounded by people in whose life I was interested. I had colleagues with whom I chatted about life, worked on projects, and created new ideas. If I shirked a responsibility, didn’t complete a task, or did mediocre quality, someone noticed. Like the shell of a shrimp, these provided me external structure, accountability, and identity.
I expected to shed this shell in retirement, not while I was still young. When I developed heart failure and had to leave my pastorate, the shell cracked years before I was ready for it. Now, like many who are self-employed, unemployed, on disability, or recently retired, my external props and structure are gone.
Now I provide the motivation for what I do each day. If I choose, I can sit at home for weeks, answering the occasional phone call and doing nothing. Probably only my husband and I would notice. A lack of external structure is one of the most bizarre feelings I have ever had. For the first time in my life, I am completely dependent on myself to create purpose, meaning, human interaction, and forward movement. Compared with my previously overloaded life, this is a strange universe for me.
I have a healthy dose of self-discipline and determination, so I imagine that after a time, I will develop an engaged lifestyle adapted to who I am now. I imagine this version of my life will include family, friends, writing, reading, church, volunteering, cooking, music and photography. I imagine I will have more space to breathe, pray, meditate, and think than when I was a full-time pastor of a busy church and trying to manage heart failure.
My current life is neither better nor worse than my earlier one, it is merely different. Radically different, but just different. Adjusting to the difference is where I encounter The Void.
Thinking about The Void, reminds me of when my family got lost on day trips or was in a difficult predicament. At such times, I confidently told them, “Think of this as an adventure! We’ve never been in this place before and probably never will be again. Pay attention to where we are. It’s an unexpected gift!” Granted, in the moment, it was not always received well by the people around me, but it was true, nevertheless.
Also true: I forget this perspective of adventure when I am the one who is lost and running late, or in a circumstance I dislike. Thinking of it as adventure doesn’t cross my mind.
Like now: I so want to reach the destination of knowing what is next in my life — or at least have a roadmap — that I am not paying attention to the goodness of the here and now. “Pay attention, Barbara, you have never been in this place before, nor will you be here again. Consider it an adventure, an unexpected gift.”
Easier said than done. However, if I stop plowing through the void and pay attention instead, I can learn from it. I imagine I will gain insight into myself—what I really want and need, and who I am underneath the external props. I will rediscover that my true identity rests in God, not an external structure. I will grow in ways I cannot imagine yet.
Being angry and frustrated at the void prevents me from learning what it can teach. As with getting lost on the road, the void is not where I want to be, but it is where I am. The next time I experience a void in my life will be inherently different by having survived the void once before. Since I will only travel this specific territory once, I would do well to pay attention, learn, and see it as an unexpected gift.
I cannot yet consider this void an adventure. I am not yet walking my talk. So I will say it again in the hope that repetition helps me live it: It is better to consider new territory an adventure than to let frustration and anger its gifts.
Living in The Void is an adventure in becoming a new person. I can feel it happening already. I had better tape this on my bathroom mirror before I forget it: The Void is an adventure! Live it!