As we survey the economic and social landscape of our lives – or those of our friends and loved ones, there is a good deal of fear, frustration, confusion, and anger at the seemingly capricious nature of things. For many people, their lives, at least in a material sense, had been on a steady upward trajectory. They got a good education that enabled a desirable career that fueled the acquisition of material goods and services – and the feathering of a retirement nest. In short, they had done everything right, and were living the “good life”. Until they weren’t; until they were let go or had a contract terminated, or encountered an extended run of “bad luck”.
In our experience, people in these situations pretty quickly start to ask some searching questions: Why is this happening to me? How much longer can I last? And most importantly for our purposes here: Who am I in the absence of the work that has defined me, and the material possessions that work has enabled me to buy?
This last question strikes at the root of a fundamental problem that has been cast into sharp relief by the economic and social dislocation that is affecting so many people now. Namely, the propensity for people to find themselves living lives marked by individualism, materialism, hyper-competition, greed, over-complication, overwork, hurriedness and debt. There might be a surface veneer of beauty or “success”, but levels of real intimacy, trust and friendship are lacking or absent. These are lives that can be seen truly only when the economic fuel that powers them is removed. Take away the means to accumulate material goods and otherwise “play” or “recreate” and many people find that they have been living adrift from themselves as well as others, becoming fragmented and dispirited.
Make no mistake; we know from personal experience how uncomfortable it can be, how vulnerable it can make you feel to lose a job or otherwise suddenly find yourself in suspended animation, not sure what to do or how to move forward. We also know that everyone needs a survival dance, a way of earning income that meets basic needs. As we strive to replace or restore income to meet those needs, however, we believe it is important, even vital to consider if we have placed too much emphasis on the acquisition of material wealth to define us. There is powerful healing and personal transformation possible if we learn that our worth, our sense of self has virtually nothing to do with the labels or brands we wear, how big or fancy our home is, or what kind of car (if any) we drive. When we die, all of that quickly falls away and what remains is a sense of the person. So, what kind of person do you want to be? Where do you want to direct your life energy, your talent? By all means do what you need to do to meet your basic needs, and as you do that, seize what you might otherwise see as a descent into darkness as an initiatory experience, an opportunity to “lean in” to the dark in yourself as well as your situation.
When you’re out of work, worrying about life, you can experience a soul discovery process and find a place deep within yourself where real life purpose and meaning might be revealed. A place that might enable deep reflection on the path you have been traveling through life. From this place of reflection it is not uncommon to discover that our sense of self has been shaped by a set of assumptions undergirding our existence and actions. And so it’s a good practice to question and unravel those assumptions, and see if we still identify with the values, goals and aspirations of mainstream society. In particular, it’s a good idea to question our allegiance to consumerism and materialism as markers of “success”. Pankaj Mishra writes eloquently of this phenomenon in his startling new book, The Age of Anger:
For nearly three decades, the religion of technology and GDP and the crude 19th-century calculus of self-interest have dominated politics and intellectual life. Today, the society of entrepreneurial individuals competing in the rational market reveals unplumbed depths of misery and despair; it spawns a nihilistic rebellion against order itself.
With so many of our landmarks in ruins, we can barely see where we are headed, let alone chart a path. But even to get our basic bearings we need, above all, greater precision in matters of the soul.
We are not arguing here to forsake possessions; we are suggesting that allegiance to them as a measure of success, worth, one’s standing as a person, is unhealthy. Among other things, it holds us back from “the initiatory journey that culminates in true adulthood” as Bill Plotkin describes in his path-breaking book, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche. This matters because as Plotkin explains “true adults — visionary artisans — are the generators of the most creative and effective actions in defense of all life and in the renaissance and evolution of generative human cultures.” Viewed in this light, we think job loss or some other life challenge can, if approached in a healthy way, a way that unearths the larger story or meaning of our life, create the potential for real healing and transformation. There will inevitably be a letting go of some things – and the beliefs that animate them, but in the letting go there is a freeing up of space for something new and important to come in. Our hope is that what arrives for everyone brave enough to live this way is true adulthood.