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The Cure for Unemployment Neurosis

Speech I delivered at the May 2017 ICT event.

Here is a link to the ten-minute video:

My name is Ed. I am an over-55, unemployed white male. I used to work as a software trainer. I’ve been without a full-time job since Halloween 2016. Every company that I applied to said “We have decided to pursue other candidates who we think fit better with our organization.”

As a result, I’ve had the typical self-esteem issues; my confidence has wavered at times, and I’ve wondered whether I’ll ever land another full-time position, and I’ve worried that my wife and friends consider me a failure.Of course, I’ve fretted about the financials, but more often I’ve wondered what I’ll do with the rest of my life.

A friend suggested I read a book you may have heard of: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. First published in 1946, Man’s Search for Meaning is considered a modern classic. More than 12 million copies have been sold in over twenty languages. It was the number one answer to a survey that asked “Name a book that changed your life.”

For those of you who have not already read the book, I’ll read the back-cover synopsis from the 2006 edition. If you are one of those who have read the book, forgive me. This will take but a moment.

Psychiatrist Victor Frankl’s memoir has riveted generations with its descriptions of life in Nazi death campsites and its lessons for spiritual survival. Based on his own experience and stories of his patients, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward.

In his preface to the 2006 edition, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote of Frankl: “Terrible as it was, his experience in Auschwitz reinforced what was already one of his key ideas: Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.”

Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: In work, in love, and in courage during difficult times---also called suffering.

My friends, you are in a difficult time.

If you were not, you would not be here today. You would be on vacation, on sabbatical, or retired.

And why is this a difficult time for you? It is because you want a job.

You want a job for all the reasons listed in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

A job pays money. With money you can fulfill your physical needs for shelter and food, and your needs for security and safety.

Through your job, you socialize and commune, meeting your needs for belonging and love.

At your job you accomplish things and are recognized for it. This feeds your sense of self-worth and builds your pride and self-esteem.

And your job builds the fire of self-actualization, a life-long journey and process that both fuels and feeds off your creativity.

Now, I’ve examined many diagrams and models of Maslow’s hierarchy and I have not spotted the word meaning on any of the diagrams---but it is inferred. Work not only fulfills needs, but by fulfilling most of them---gives us meaning.

So, without work there is a fear of meaninglessness.

Frankl recognized this.

In his postscript to the 1984 edition of the book, he wrote “In particular, I think of the mass of people who are today unemployed. Fifty years ago, I published a study devoted to a specific type of depression I had diagnosed in cases of young patients suffering from what I called unemployment neurosis. And I could show this neurosis really originated in twofold erroneous identification: being jobless was equated with being useless, and being useless was equated with having a meaningless life.”

I want to focus on a specific word in Frankl’s quote. The word is “job.” Frankl wrote “being jobless was equated with being useless.”

And I want to confess, I misled you earlier about the Maslow stuff, where I said “through your job….at your job…your job feeds the fires.”

A job does none of the things I said earlier. Yes, a job pays money. But, it is work that gives meaning.

What were the three sources of meaning cited by Frankl?: In love, in courage during difficult times, and in work. Not at a job.

In that 1984 postscript, Frankl continued, “Consequently, whenever I succeeded in persuading the patients to volunteer in youth organizations, adult education, public libraries, and the like---in other words, as soon as they could fill their abundant free time with some sort of unpaid but meaningful activity---their depression disappeared although their economic situation had not changed and their hunger was the same.”

In other words, you don’t find meaning through external things; you create your own meaning.

Rabbi Kushner provided a great example of the peril of external dependence.

He relates the scene in Arthur Miller’s play Incident at Vichy in which an upper-middle-class professional appears before the Nazi authority that has occupied his town and shows his credentials: his university degrees, his letters of reference from prominent citizens, and so on. The Nazi asks him, “Is that everything you have?” The man nods. The Nazi throws it all in the wastebasket and tells him “Good, now you have nothing.” The man whose self-esteem had always depended on the respect of others, is emotionally destroyed.

Now, imagine yourself at your previous place of employment. The HR person and security people have just asked you to hand over all the company-owned equipment and materials you still had. Were you shattered? Did you walk out the door with nothing?

Frankl said we are never left with nothing so long as we retain the freedom to choose how we will respond.

He said the way a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity---even under the most difficult circumstances---to add a deeper meaning to his life.

And I can tell you Frankl was right. Once I accepted my fate and the hard times, I found it within myself to move on. I started volunteering and I’m trying to build a new small business. I have found meaning in my new work.

Therefore, I beg you and challenge you today to add deeper meaning to your life.

The alternative, as Frankl saw, is to waste away

Fortunately, by coming here today, you have taken the first step toward finding that meaning.

When you registered for this event, you accepted how you cannot change your circumstances.

Your presence today announces you are willing to change yourself.

Now, your work today and the stories you share will strengthen your resilience, enable you to shed your fear and allow you to embrace change.

And that embrace is what will ultimately allow you to discover the meaning you want and need.

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