What Works: Losing your footing and finding the ground

Using the economic downturn to reevaluate your life's choices


Nancy’s whole career has been in pharmaceutical communications. After watching round after round of layoffs at her firm over the past two years, her ticket finally came up in February. She went from a high level, lucrative management position to unemployment overnight. Stories like this are playing out across the country by the thousands. Good skilled workers lose their jobs and find strong competition for lesser positions. Seemingly secure financial futures based on real estate and stock investments disappear overnight, leaving uncertainty and worry.

But listen to Nancy:

“Ironically, this may be one of the greatest gifts I have received in my life — not because unemployment is a gift but because this gave me a forced opportunity to evaluate where I am in my life and if I want to continue on this path. In fact, I had been increasingly stressed out by and unhappy with my job for some time.”

Is it just blowing self-help smoke to say this was a good thing? Is Nancy just some crazy exception? Not in my experience.

  • Losing a job can be a shattering loss of identity and purpose,
    or it can be an opportunity to assess your true calling and look for a better fit.
  • Losing your nest egg can be a wrenching loss of stability and security,
    or a lesson in how attached you’d become.
  • Losing status can be humiliating,
    or the beginning of real humility.

I know what it’s like to be on both sides of that equation. Last summer, when my 4-year position at a nonprofit was downsized out of existence after I had led the project that made that possible, it was just the kick in the pants I needed to get back to my calling as a writer, a calling I’ve known since I was 14 but followed only in fits and starts.

In contrast, when I bought a “starter home” months before the last housing crash and watched my life savings plus $40,000 wiped out overnight, the unfairness of it screamed in my ear. My older brothers and my parents before them had rolled one house into the next, riding decades of near-constant growth. Because I thought the housing market should be fair, I just kept ignoring reality until it blew up. (Meaning: foreclosure.)

The if-onlys

Spiritual writer and retreat leader Margaret Silf talks about the “if-onlys.” If only I wasn’t born into a generation that got handed a bad economy, I’d have it easy like my brothers. Well, I was. If only I was more prudent while times were good. Nice idea, but I wasn’t. If-onlys are lessons unlearned — by blaming the present on the past, we stay stuck.

“If-onlys” are destructive because things are the way they are, and making decisions based on anything else means your actions don’t match the situation. They also make us think we’re entitled to something we haven’t got or to keep something we have — to be attached to possessions, status or financial security. When we’re able to do away with “if-onlys” in our lives, we free ourselves to make decisions based on what is real.

In a recent homily on the John 12 reading about grains of wheat needing to die to become plants, Fr. Jim Martin said of people facing a loss of status due to financial setbacks, “you might come to see that that’s not such a bad thing to let go of. Maybe it’s been preventing you from some freedom. If you let those particular grains die, you might actually be freed of something. In the midst of suffering, you might experience some new life.”

Zen teacher Brad Warner recounts losing a “dream job” in his latest book, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: “People tend to get pretty panicky when their source of livelihood is threatened. But most of us do okay no matter what. I have a certain amount of blind faith that whatever I’ve put into the human community as a whole will be available to me as an individual, should I need it. I guess that sounds a bit starry-eyed. But I’ve seen it happen too often to have any serious doubts about the process.”

This may be little comfort if children’s medical bills are looming, but what’s the alternative? Making the fearful choice never helps. Fear will lead us to avoid risks that might give us fulfillment, or to freeze. Walking through fear with love can take things to a whole ‘nother level.

The promise

When we feel loss in a concrete tangible way, that’s when our faith is purified. We are taken beyond the reward and punishment conception of God, to our Creator, who loves us with the unconditional love of the father in the Prodigal Son parable, who is grateful to have his son home safe and sound, regardless of the circumstances.

The beautiful Christa Wells song “Held,” made popular by Natalie Grant, gives a stark picture of this moment. (Click here to hear Christa’s version, or here for Natalie’s video.) In it, a devout Christian mother, after difficulty getting pregnant, watches her sick 2-month-old die:

This is what it means to be held, how it feels
when the sacred is torn from your life and you survive.
This is what it is to be loved, and to know
that the promise was, when everything fell, we’d be held.

Many have had far worse troubles than I, but I’ve had my share. Today, I am grateful for it all, because it is who I am. No matter what happens, I know I can accept God’s love, or turn away in fear. Love is always an option. I wish I could give you a simple formula or set of exercises to follow to feel God’s embrace in this way, but I can assure you it is here waiting for you. That’s a promise. The hard truth is that sometimes it takes some pain first. But the simple suggestions in the sidebar at right might help, starting with prayer and meditation. My last column offered a simple meditation practice and described its benefits; and your comments and emails show it struck a chord!

Spiritual grounding

Spiritually-grounded guidance about life’s goals and career — whether Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life or Marsha Sinetar‘s Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow — makes the same point over and over: If your day-to-day life is aligned with your values and aimed toward your purpose, and if it’s based on an honest picture of your current reality without regrets or baggage, then financial success takes care of itself, or you find you don’t even care.

Nancy is putting together a consultancy practice and pursuing a grant for a music program. She says, “All of these activities are the result of being back in touch with the ‘real me’ and following my bliss, my passions.” And, well, the fact that you’re reading this column shows I’m living out my calling.

Not everyone has Nancy’s go-get-’em quality, but we can all take the opportunity to reevaluate. So if you have lost your footing through a work or financial setback or other personal challenge, take a breath, know that you are loved and that everything will be OK no matter how hard the present moment may feel, and try the suggestions in the sidebar on the right. You may just see a new path, one that has always been there behind a cloud of dust.

Then use the comment area below or send me an email at phil@bustedhalo.com to share your struggles and your success stories, along with questions, suggestions and gripes about dealing with financial setbacks.

Names are changed.