#904 – Dick Bernard: Living in Hell.

A few hours ago we were a pizza party for a friend who just turned 50. It was the usual kind of casual gettogether. Small talk. Catching up with people you haven’t seen for awhile. A cake with two candles: “5” and “0”, singing “Happy Birthday to you….” Each of us at or beyond that age can fill in the blanks of our own similar experience.
It was probably that party that generated the dream that woke me up the middle of this night. The strange dream whose details you can’t remember exactly, but had more than a hint of desperation within it, and caused me, this night, to break out in a sweat right before I woke up, just now.
It was a dream about being unemployed, with less and less hope. A reality about to begin for me 32 years ago this Fall; a reality in which the “50” man has been living for the last 2-3 years, with no active prospects. One day he was working; the next day it was over.
We stood around the birthday cake last evening, sang Happy Birthday and all, but everyone in the room, of adult age, probably were thinking, as I was: where will this hell end for our friend, our relative.
No one really knows.
For me, perhaps for most of us there in that room, there was a sense of hopelessness. I’m 14 years retired and my “linked in” profile is of little use to this 50 year old: even if I had contacts, they are in sectors for which the birthday guy has no qualifications whatever.
It is not quite so simple as “just go get a job”.
By the time you’re in your 40s, in our society, your life course has been pretty well set. You were trained for something, and you did it, and then it ended for one of an endless number of reasons, and there you were, stuck, getting older, unqualified for the available alternatives. So, as with this 50 year old, you need to retrain to do something you haven’t done before, and then begin life again, at 50, in competition with younger people who have better skills (and are cheaper, etc., and can be shaped and molded easier than someone with a particular mindset.)
More than most, in that room last night, I could relate to this guy seeking to start over.
Yesterday, in this space, I wrote of a trip to Quebec with my Dad at age 42 in June, 1982. At that moment in history I was at the end of a sabbatical leave from my career, and I had, literally, “burned out”, ten years into a high stress job. And there were assorted other dynamics intruding on an outwardly successful appearing life.
I was doing well, outside, but not doing so well at all inside. I needed to regroup.
Three months or so later I resigned the job (in the midst of a bad recession), and embarked on 12 months which I have always described, since, as both the best and worst year of my entire life. (I had better years, and I actually had worse, but not occurring at the same time.)
Because I had resigned, there was no unemployment insurance.
I started out pretty optimistic. My Christmas letter for 1982 was not hopeless. It is here, see the last paragraph:Vietnam Mem DC 1982001
Twelve months later, in early September, 1983, I was near desperate. I had been on the Corporate Board for Catholic Charities when my mis-adventure began, watching over programs for the down and out. Here I was, a year later, near down and out, too proud to reach out for welfare or the such.
It was probably old memories of that time that triggered the unpleasant dream just now.
At the end of September, 1983, I was reemployed, back to work in mid-October, and the hell began to end, and life has been very good since.
But I’m not prone to judge what’s going on in the mind of the person down-on-his (or her) -luck for whatever reason. Unemployment is not a soundbite. It is a cruel reality.
I’ve been there, done that.
I wish the new 50 year old my own resurrection, which began in Hibbing MN, mid-October, 1983….
Then, perhaps, it can be a “Happy Birthday”.

2 replies
  1. hshuckhart@yahoo.com
    hshuckhart@yahoo.com says:

    Although being unemployed is clearly a “hellish” time for people, there are others who suffer when unemployment is high. Many people have jobs they are not happy with due to low pay, crappy bosses, inconvenient or overly long working hours, bullying colleagues and so on. When there is little or no prospect of changing to a better job, the job you have becomes something you loathe. The joke about the person who doesn’t want to go to school because the teachers and students make fun of him but he has to because he is the principal is all too true in some cases. When unemployment is low, people are willing to strike out in a new direction, start a new business, or find people who are more comfortable to work with. Even those who stay put may have more hope and spirit knowing they could leave if they so chose.

    • admin
      admin says:

      Certainly I agree (mostly) on all counts. If everything is coming up roses for an individual, it tends to be difficult to be empathetic with those in less fortunate circumstances for any of the reasons you articulate. Of course, you and I knew each other personally back then. It was a very hard time for me, and the stress of the job was the only public part for me. I needed the time away. But it almost did me in as I found it difficult to find any kind of a niche where I could actually make a living. Luckily for me, everything turned out fine – at least so far!


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