catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 2 :: 2007.01.26 — 2007.02.09


Gainful unemployment

Or thoughts on becoming a human being not a human doing

Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be a nurse.  I remember my mother, also a trained nurse, reading a Golden Book called Nurse Nancy.  There were even these funky decorated bandages taped in the back of the book for use—this in a day when bandages came almost exclusively in tan.  As I grew, I read the series of books about Penny the nurse, all of her adventures in nursing school and then all the different types of nursing she practiced.  She did it all, even married a doctor.  In high school I was in the Future Nurses Club and I was a trained Red Cross volunteer in a local hospital.

After high school, I went to one of the denominational universities where my parents had attended and met.  It was the 1970s, and while many new career fields were opening up for women, there were a whole lot of women on my dorm floor pursuing nursing—or teaching, the other acceptable field—and husbands of the correct denomination.  For me, college proved to be a time of learning and experiencing the world in whole new ways. While it had been ingrained in me that part of my college “work” was to find a husband, I immersed myself in all that college offered, graduated and took a nursing job, but not a husband (at least not at the proper time of the summer after graduation).

I, like many women of my generation, dove into a career and sought balance in new and different ways than many of our mothers had attempted.  My own mother did not work outside of the home once my father had completed his education.  Armed with the thought that I could be and have all, a very healthy dose of Protestant work ethic and a family history of workaholism, I marched into the future. 

Along the way I married and bore two children and sought balance, wearing many hats  as wife, mother, pastor’s wife, nurse, community member, daughter of aging parents and in-laws, etc.  On the whole, I truly feel that my husband and I have done a good job at the art of living, but my self-worth has often been tied to being productive, whether in the home or in my career.  And this insidious desire to always be productive inhibits all kinds of relationships, not only because I felt I could not devote myself to “nonproductive” activities, but also because I became judgmental of others and their desire to be “nonproductive” at times.

On the journey of life, I have been blessed to have encountered angels who have shared messages of grace with me.  One such angel was a nurse co-worker who told me that my job did not need to be number one in my life.  This was a truly revolutionary thought for me who felt that in general we are what we do for a living.  My own father, as a busy pastor of a large rural congregation, spared little time for self as he was called to serve God and God’s people.  Although not called to be a pastor, I did have a calling and as such felt that I needed to have the same unhealthy drive in order to demonstrate my serious devotion to the tasks set before me.  And if work was so important—and it was—one could conveniently immerse oneself in it when the other aspects of life seemed overwhelming.

Enter a diverse faith community in my small town to challenge my assumptions.  Here is a family which left a viable business to live and work in community at a retreat center.  Here is a couple who started a fair trade store on faith.  Here is a pastor who left shepherding a local congregation to write and teach and open an earth-friendly goods store.  Here is a young woman who left a regular 9 to 5 job to pursue her love of adventure in the uncertain travel industry.  Here is a Hospice chaplain who devotes many hours to encourage food sustainability with a passion that is contagious.  Here is a musician who lives simply and shares his musical gifts in many and various ways in this community when he could choose to chase the limelight.  Were these folks in their seemingly unconventional lives showing me how to stop worshipping work, stop playing at worship, and stop working at play, as I had read in the book Work, Play, and Worship in the 1970s?  Was I just a really slow learner?

Well, good for them and their flights of fancy.  I was a nurse and everyone knows there is a great need for nurses.  Besides that, I had an excellent education, including graduate work, that should not be wasted.  I had been employed for 13 years with an agency that served the community to which I commuted and I was vested in the retirement plan which would grow with continued employment.  I also had two children to assist in their college educations. 

But what about setting aside time to “be still”?  What about that “still, small voice”?    Amidst an increasing workload at my job, to which I commuted about an hour each way, I began to seriously consider leaving my position.  "Surely I should look for something else before quitting," I thought, as it would certainly be foolish to not have another job in the wings.  But how could I even begin to discern which direction to go when I worked 40 hours the week of Christmas at my "part-time" job?   In a moment of crisis, which on reflection nearly a year later was a moment of grace, I resigned what was an incredibly exciting (albeit stressful) nursing experience, not knowing what I would do next. 

And truthfully, I still do not know.  Enter again the diverse community in my small town, who in fact never left and whose presence sustains me.  The family who lives and works at the retreat center gave me 24-hour retreat as a Christmas gift, which will be used on my birthday as I take time to “be still”.  The couple who started the fair trade store and who publish this online magazine asked me to reflect on this experience and I am blessed to be asked to ponder.  The pastor/earth-friendly shop proprietor gifted me with a small part-time job that allows me to express new sides of myself.  The traveling young woman shares her love of global connectedness to enrich the lives of those around her and she is planning a Korean BBQ for my birthday.  The Hospice chaplain invited me to serve as a context associate in her pursuit of a doctorate of ministry and, as host of a local food group, she has opened a whole new way of looking at the very essence of how we are nourished in life.  The musician has invited me to learn to dance and tutored me and encouraged me unendingly to keep dancing. 

And so the dance of life continues.  The past year I have lived life in all its heights and depths.  I have relished relationships in more profound ways.  While I have never been totally independent, even in the times when I thought I was, I am learning to lean.  My husband has been his ever-supportive self and my two children have risen to the occasion, miraculously attending colleges without their mother’s nursing salary.

What about all of that nursing experience?  Was it wasted?  I think that all the knowledge of how to stay healthy helped me take care of myself throughout the years and I can now at midlife be grateful for the disciplines that have kept me healthy as I learn new disciplines for the next phase of my journey.  I have had wonderful opportunities in nursing that have taught me many lessons. 

And yes, the Protestant work ethic rears its head from time to time.  Most recently, it appeared as my father had a health crisis that was exacerbated by not taking care of himself as he still pastors a congregation at age 78.  Wouldn’t it be convenient to have a busy job to immerse myself in to hide this pain? 

But then there is the moment of grace, when I smile between the tears and tell my son that I am seeking gainful unemployment, as he tells me about a job interview he has as he completes his senior year in college.

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