When losing a job, people will sometimes say, “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” This is a common phrase that many people assume is biblical in nature, but Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, first coined a version of the phrase. On the flip side, many believe that “God helps those who helps themselves,” is in the Bible. (An English political theorist named Algernon Sidney, and later, Benjamin Franklin, initially used this phrase.) They mainly view success as a by-product of one’s own efforts. Others believe in God having a plan for their lives. Either way, we need to put in the effort. But does consistent effort always lead to opportunity? What if we do not find that open door or open window? We may need to discover a whole new path forward. Whatever the means to keep going, it takes faith to move forward! And maybe a dose of divine intervention.
People often assume their effort and personality alone will lead to success. We will overcome that barrier and reach that goal one way or another! From securing a great job to trying to have a baby, or finding that perfect house, the societal implication is that if we try hard enough, we will succeed. But maybe God wants to take the whole house down and lead us somewhere else altogether.
When our efforts do not result in a typical trajectory, we can first feel a sense of failure or disappointment. Whether the loss of a perfect position, pregnancy, a partner, or other form of rejection, we are given similar platitudes. “You’ll get another one.” Until we do not. When do we go to Plan B? But why is Plan B often considered “second best?”
My husband and I turned to adoption to create a family. And chose a new teaching career when all the doors and windows closed to his technology career. Plan A is not always the better one. Just a different one. In fact, he likes his new field even more. Maybe we were meant to have this outcome all along. Whatever the destination or the disappointment, we were sustained by the faith that God has a purpose and plan for our lives.
The Age Barrier
My engineer husband hit the age wall at age 55, after losing his director-level job in the biotech industry. Prior to that, he had worked in aerospace and wireless technology fields, so he was no stranger to reinventing himself. But no attempts to mask his age, from dying his beard to shaving it off, to shedding a few pounds, led to breaking down the age wall. That is not to say that God did not have a plan for his life. Or that he should have stopped trying and taken an early retirement. But it was admittedly discouraging to wait and wonder. We came to realize that the destination was not the one we were first hoping for. Nor were the obstacles a guarantee for the desired outcome. But they were still meant for our ultimate growth. That’s where faith came in. The Bible does say, “Do not throw away your confidence. It will be richly rewarded,” (Hebrews 10:35).
Where or whom do you put your confidence and hope? Having experienced the unexpected detours, I do believe that loss can ultimately lead to unexpected blessings and greater good. When my husband lost that biotech job, it enabled him to be at home more, during a particularly taxing time with our youngest teenage son. That job had taken him to from Northern to Southern California for the previous two years. Thus, the layoff spared him of the weekly trek from Los Angeles to the Bay Area for his 1.5 days at home with family. This was the only job layoff where I actually felt a sense of relief! When a trip home for jury duty once morphed into a medical leave, I felt similar relief.
A Greater Good
This medical leave came about, after our older son had convinced his dad that it would be fun to ride down a hill on a “RipStick.” This is a glorified skateboard. It has a narrow part in the center and two parts that swivel for an added proprioceptive challenge. When my husband proceeded down the hill at a higher speed than originally anticipated, his first instinct was to leap off. He misjudged the momentum he had acquired: his physics knowledge went out the window. Speed was impossible to maintain on foot, and he tumbled forward, propelling his shoulder onto the pavement with a distinctive crack. My son, still filming on the camera, began to laugh nervously while simultaneously inquiring “Are you ok?! Are you ok?” My prone husband groaned, as he gingerly rolled over and came to a standing position. He proceeded to walk home, cradling his arm.
Ten days later, he tried to convince me that it was getting a little better every day. “Just a little bump on the shoulder,” he claimed. He is like the character in the Monty Python and Holy Grail who quipped “it’s only a flesh wound.” Ever the optimist. Until he awoke with his entire chest sporting a bright yellow and purple bruise. He been carrying out his commitments, happily volunteering at the homeless shelter with one arm, serving on jury duty and catching up on work. I finally convinced him to go to the doctor for an x-ray. Short of dying, he resists medical intervention at all costs. Thankfully he was just barely within the window of time where a surgeon could still reconstruct his broken, dislocated, and torn shoulder. That “bump” was his shoulder blade poking through muscle. Surgery led to more good outcomes than a repaired shoulder.
Rehabilitation and Redirection
The time spent rehabilitating provided some much-needed family time. While he was recuperating, I had been dealing with my own surgery recovery, and appreciated the parenting back-up when parenting problems popped up. With his job later eliminated, I developed a new appreciation for having a partner on hand. Whatever the future promised, I was happy to have him back at home!
Little did we know then that this biotech job in Los Angeles would be his last professional engineering job. His career had taken him from collaborating with astronauts at NASA, to developing wireless technology for the cell phone industry, to creating cancer imaging techniques, to improving medical diagnostic testing. As his latest position had kept him had kept him away from home more often in later years, we had begun operating in our own worlds. And felt more like roommates than partners at times.
I never imagined that his new career would turn to my field of education, when a prestigious prep school called him on the day our corporate medical benefits were set to expire. My husband had decided to work for a start-up in the medical device field, which was struggling to gain traction. But as John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you make plans.” A school I had been teaching at called to ask if he would consider becoming the new computer science teacher. They were familiar with his background, as he had taught in the summer during a previous layoff. And the former teacher had quit the day before the school year was to begin.
Thus far, my husband’s teaching experience was limited to teaching Sunday School and teaching a few summer programing classes, but he gladly accepted the job. And he quickly wrapped up work for the fledgling start-up, before plunging into his new teaching career. He created an entirely new curriculum in a week’s time and always made sure to always keep one step ahead of the students.
Ironically when the teaching offer came, we had just returned from a lovely trip to the canyons in Utah, a trip we had long imagined and finally implemented. Never did we picture that he would be returning there for the next six years, leading a group of 200 middle-schoolers. Nor did we imagine that teaching would be his longest-held job, or his most rewarding one. Initially I took pride in his corporate success, leading departments of 70 people. I celebrated the rise of his career through various companies, and relished the perks that came with that. But I came to see that his identity was not limited to the outward trappings of success that society deems significant.
Now I see the value he brings to the lives of students, particularly those who were initially intimidated by the subjects he feels so passionate about. While his new career was half the salary, it offered twice the security and stability- something we had not previously enjoyed. And he was valued by the administration in a way that he had not been before.
Where is our Identity?
His identity remained in Christ, not in the perceived worth he brings to an organization, employers who were all too ready to relieve unsuspecting workers for no specific reason. People are dismissed from jobs in such disrespectful ways today, regardless of how much effort and integrity they brought to their position. It can feel personal to be callously kicked out the door, sometimes with security in tow, but he was hardly alone.
Despite advanced degrees from Stanford and MIT, and decades of experience, my husband was not immune to downturns and employment lulls. God brought a new and unexpected teaching opportunity into our lives in the 11th hour, which led to a new professional identity.
I have questioned my own professional worth, at times, as a daily substitute teacher. In working with self-sufficient students in high school, I wonder how I can add value to my job. When I ask myself if I am meant for deeper contributions that use my talents more, I pause and reflect. Before reinventing myself, I consider, “How I can add value to my current role today?” When I ponder if I should open a new door to another opportunity, I remind myself of the good I bring to each student and staff interaction. And I appreciate the reduction of stress I currently experience, compared to the larger teaching and sales roles I once had. I realize that God uses us in every season. Sometimes less is more. And when we invest in the lives of others, we can find significance in whatever stage we are in.
Misery Loves Company?
In the US alone, there are approximately 6.05 million people who were unemployed and looking for work in Sept of 2023. Even though there can be strength in numbers, to know we are not alone, this does not often feel like a great club to be a part of. Nor the widow club, or the divorce club, or the pregnancy loss club, nor the invisible illness. Noone wants to be on the outside looking in and being part of a minority. In an article “Going Through Hard Times,” Psych Central.com outlines ten ways to find joy, purpose and meaning.
- Maintaining/changing your perspective: Reframe or step away; don’t assume your present is forever.
- Embracing Emotions: Don’t always try to be strong; recognize loss and grief and give space to feel.
- Practicing Positive Projection: Focus on the possible/desired positive outcomes of a situation.
- Letting Go of the Need for Control: Let yourself off the hook and practice acceptance.
- Finding Meaning and Purpose: Find joy in everyday moments or calm in chaos and crisis.
- Establishing Healthy Rituals: Establish regularity during uncertain or stressful times.
- Connecting with Your Support System: Seek those who understand you and can help ground you.
- Finding a Healthy Outlet: Practice self-care and other ways to cope and feel connected.
- Tapping into your Coping Tools: Tap into your emotional toolkit and find what works best for you.
- Considering Therapy: Work with others on an action plan, where you feel support and validation.
Finding Meaning in Waiting
How do you find meaning during the waiting seasons of life? This is about more than explaining an extended absence on your resume. It’s about discovering joy and purpose in everyday life. If we find value in the unexpected deserts and valleys that we find ourselves in, pain is never wasted. I remember talking to a man waiting for a heart transplant. He did not see this time as a dark valley, between mountain top experiences. He found beauty in the low places too.
We need not have our whole future mapped out or have one sole path. It’s useful to have goals and to make plans, as long we are prepared to change directions. I have learned that detours and delays are inevitable, and sometimes the best part of the journey. After struggling through doubts in college and careers, I learned that if we are so focused on the future, we can miss an opportunity right in front of us. My son went through this, too, when he was unsure of what to do after college and took a temporary position supervising pooches in a pet hotel. But somehow this led to a promising career in the autonomous vehicle industry! Former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, used to say, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery and today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”
Making Waiting Manageable
The combination of the mysterious unknown and the lack of control, can make waiting particularly painful. Kate Sweeny PhD, a stress researcher at University of California in Riverside, suggests that to make waiting times more manageable, we should embrace experience moments of awe. When did you last stop to time to notice the beautiful sunset, or admire the way the sunlight filters through leaves?
Sweeny also suggests finding activities which put us in a “flow state,” where you feel a sense of total engagement. I use this strategy when my tinnitus ramps up, a particularly annoying condition that makes my ears ring continually. The creative endeavor of the brain of writing or painting taps into a part of the brain that takes me away from the troubles of the present moment. It shifts the other noise to further in the background. Similarly, mindfulness meditation is helpful in recentering the brain. When the focus turns to the breath, it helps to drown out negative thinking patterns, which psychologists call Cognitive Distortion.)
The heading speaks for itself. But there is actually a Cambridge Dictionary definition for this term: A bad way of thinking that makes you believe that you will always fail; that bad things will happen to you; or that you are not a very good person.” This type of thinking usually starts with a trigger. A job loss would qualify as one! “I’ll never get a job!” is one such example. Or how about: “Everyone else is way more qualified!” Fortunately, my son did not have that thinking when he was competing for positions where applicants had far more experience and education and he till landed his dream position in a leading tech company. Sometimes we just need other people to believe in us, so we can believe in ourselves.
An extended wait may require input from others who have been in similar situations: a support group for people in your stage of life, an endorsement from a friend or a colleague, or help from a licensed professional. Psych Central offers 9 tips to stop negative thinking.
Stopping the Negative Spiral
- Read yourself: by checking into feelings, paying attention to any physical feelings or triggers.
- Identify your most often-used negative thought patterns: Think about what you are thinking about.
- Change roles: treat yourself how you would treat other people and give yourself grace.
- Examine the evidence: Look at how you are successful and productive. Don’t give too much weight into how others may view you; if you think less of yourself, think about all the positives you offer.
- Sum of its parts: Don’t surrender to labels that do not define the whole of you are.
- Skip generalizations: Don’t use terms like never or always, or take an all or nothing mentality; instead, reframe or come up with 3 opposite phrases!
- Avoid speculations: do not read other people’s minds or jump to conclusions about a person or situation and try to see it from their point of view.
- No more “shoulds:” This language puts pressure or guilt on you and others, and leads to unrealistic expectations, disappointment or shame.
- Cost-benefit analysis: the risk of a decision versus the benefit: Prepare a list of pros and cons.
Whatever stage of life you may find yourself in, the bigger the gap between your expectation and your reality, the bigger the disappointment. In seasons like that, I try not to compare myself to others. And I recall the words of the psalmist in Psalm 37, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently; fret not over the one who prospers in his way.” There are many forms and paths to “success,” but the important thing is to remain true and kind to yourself. And do not let others define you. Because you never know what is in store when you have the courage to open another door!