(Photo by Flickr user elston, and used under Creative Commons license.)
Let me tell you a story.
Ten years ago, I turned thirty. My life was in tatters. I was ending a chaotic and soul-draining relationship, and it was not ending in that clean surgical way in which relationships should end. It was like pulling away ivy that had been growing for years - pull out a huge chunk, find the next tendril, pull hard, try not to uproot something valuable, find the next tendril...
I had been fired three months before from a job that I hated. I despised the job, and yet to be fired seemed like the ultimate humiliation. I didn't want to be there, but I was furious that they were claiming I wasn't doing good enough work to be doing that job. I pursued legal action, based on firing without just cause, and quickly found out that it was impossible given my state's employment laws.
Because I was living paycheck to paycheck, my firing set in motion a series of events that eventually led to bankruptcy. Eventually, I left my home, ended up living with my brother for several years because I had nowhere else to go and couldn't afford my own place. (Thank you, by the way, to my brother for opening his door to me.)
At the time, I was living in a house that I hated with roommates that I couldn't stand. I had no privacy. I had no social life. I was working in a job that felt tenuous and temporary, and I didn't really know anybody there well enough to call a friend.
I was alone.
I remember that, for my thirtieth birthday, I wanted to get away. I drove to Bellingham, which was as far as I could manage to escape for a night. I drove sixty miles north to Bellingham, got a burger and fries from a highway burger stand, and parked by the waterfront. And I remember watching the sun slowly setting over the water, being alone, gratified for the privacy but aching from my loneliness and sadness. I cried several times that night. It was one of the saddest days of my life.
And then I drove home to my house that I hated, and went to sleep without talking to anyone. No presents, no cards, no cake. That was it.
That was a long time ago, and it was one of the worst birthdays or days that I have ever experienced in my life. I look back at that time now and it seems like a lifetime ago.
Tomorrow I will turn forty, and I've felt on the verge of tears for most of the day. My wife wants to know what I want for my birthday, and I don't know. I have no ideas. I don't want any presents. I don't know how to celebrate this birthday.
I have been out of work for nearly five months. Looking for a job is very much like dating, in the sense that it feels like rejection after rejection after rejection. The momentary bursts of joy are quickly washed away by the repeated slaps in the face. The thrill of the chase is replaced by the desperation of the chase, the fervent need to be exactly what someone (a company) is looking for, and the repeated discovery that you're not the guy. You're not the one they've been looking for, but you're very very close, and maybe someday you'll find the right match for you.
So I have been out of work for nearly five months, and our finances are a bit tight. And my sense of self-worth is pretty low these days. And I'm turning forty, which is supposed to be a pivotal age in my life, a watershed moment, a moment that means something. Some birthdays are just a birthday, and some birthdays are supposed to mean something. 18, 21, 30, 40, 50, 65. Some birthdays matter, and you take note of where you are in your life.
I have a beautiful wife who loves me. I have a son who lights up my life on a daily basis. I have a close circle of friends, friends real and virtual. I have a decent home, music to play, food to eat. We drive good cars. We eat well. I am happy.
But I'm out of work. And that's eating me alive. It is such a small thing, with all the great things happening in my life. But it matters, and it's painful and frustrating and infuriating. And it makes this birthday something that I just want to be over.
It was just over ten years ago that I took my first job in the nonprofit world, and I immediately knew what I would be doing for the rest of my working days. I never realized that I could make money and generate social change at the same time. As many regrets as I have about the misdeeds and failings and imperfections of nonprofit organizations, they are driven by missions that seek to make the world a better place. That might mean cleaning up the air and water, or it might mean fighting social injustices, or it might mean creating jobs for the jobless, finding food for the hungry, finding homes for the homeless. But every organization for which I've worked in the last ten years is trying to make the world a better place, and I have been fortunate to work in this field.
I want to get back to work. It's been ten years since I joined this field, this vocation, the change-the-world career ladder. I'm looking for a way back into that career ladder, back into the movement, back on the horse.
It seems somehow portentous that I find myself back in this position. Ten years ago, I had the rug pulled out from under me, and I made a seemingly small decision that changed my life. Ten years later, the rug has been pulled out again, and I find myself scrambling for footing. Once again, I'm left unsure of myself, questioning my own talents and abilities. Once again, I'm facing one of those birthdays, one that signals a change of life. Once again, so it seems, it's time for another great transition in my life.
I want this period to be over. I hate the waiting. I know that soon, I will find a job that will change my life. I want the waiting to be over so the next change can begin happening. The waiting is what's killing me.
So tomorrow, I will celebrate my birthday that I have been dreading for so long. The next day, I have an interview for a job. It might not be the next great job, but it's the next interview, and that's something. It could lead to the next great job, and it is that promise that keeps me going.
Happy birthday to me.