Last week I had a beery reunion with some longtime colleagues, all of whom are looking for work. Beside a roaring fire in an old Chicago tavern, we went around the table.
Each talked about how she structures her day. This one gets up at 8:00 to stay in the habit, this one doesn't get up until 10:00. She limits her job search to three hours and then shuts off the computer. She networks and Facebooks all day.
They talked about the hassles and humiliations of the weekly automated status-update calls from the unemployment office: "Why don't they just say, 'If nothing has changed, press one'?"
They went through their contingency plans: "After March I'll have to move in with my little brother."
They were amazingly willing to talk about their feelings, which I suppose they've had plenty of time to become intimately in touch with.
Their fear I understood; their humor I enjoyed; their ebbing confidence broke my heart.
In one of his last interviews, the late Studs Terkel remembered how people processed the Great Depression. Not that this is that; I recognize the many drawbacks of this historical comparison. But still:
Suddenly they’re not working. Or those guys who retired, suddenly their pensions are gone. Now they’re in the lobby in the daytime. They don’t know what the hell to do. So they drank more. And played the horses more. And there were fights. What were the fights over? Their own self-respect. I mean, they had nothing to do. They were furious. Who do you blame? Who do you hit? You hit each other. That was sort of a metaphor for what happened to the country. They blamed themselves. Yet I met these people who weathered it one way or the other, some just by lending a hand.
The lessons of the Great Depression? Don’t blame yourself. Turn to others. Take part in the community. The big boys are not that bright.
Hope dies last—“La esperanza muere última.” Without hope, you can’t make it. And so long as we have that hope, we’ll be okay. Once you become active helping others, you feel alive. You don’t feel, “It’s my fault.” You become a different person. And others are changed, too.
In other words—in the words of Terkel pal Kurt Vonnegut's son Mark—the meaning of life is: "We're here to get each other through this thing, whatever it is."
That's just what we'll do, old friends. How about it?