Blog Journalism Self-Help

Searching For Meaning, Sans Job

With roughly 20 million Americans currently unemployed and many more temporarily away from work, many are searching for what will give their lives meaning, purpose and structure, sans job. A recent shift in my perception has been extremely helpful in keeping my spirits high. So, I thought I should share it…

I’m not exactly sure where my value system originated, but somehow it has long-been ingrained in me that one seeks purpose through their career. The idea is logical enough — you spend a great portion of your time and energy in your job, you build relationships around your job, and your job seems to be a critical thread in the fabric of your identity. Seeking a role that is meaningful to you seems only natural, and perfectly acceptable. 

In the U.S. especially, people largely identify themselves by their career. It’s one of the first questions people generally ask upon meeting you: “So, what do you do?” If you can answer the question pridefully, you feel successful, like your life has purpose and meaning. If you answer the question shamefully (or, God forbid, as unemployed), then you suddenly feel inferior and less valuable as a human being. One’s “purpose” seems to be embodied by finding the right job.

Lately I have been questioning the veracity of this idea. I have been reading a lot of spiritual books, listening to inspirational videos on YouTube and ruminating on the topic when I wake up in the morning, seeking a reason to drag myself out of bed. 

What I have concluded is that my equation is wrong.

In the past few years I have attended quite a few funerals and memorial services. One thing became abundantly clear to me while listening to people talk about their lost loved one. Rarely, if ever, did those people talk about the person’s career. Nor did they even talk about the person’s accomplishments. They talked about the person’s unique personality traits, their little quirks and idiosyncrasies, the little gestures of kindness they showed, or the memories they helped create. They talked about how Joe braided his niece’s hair on her first day of kindergarten; how Peter loved to fix things with Duct Tape; how Grandma prepared her cinnamon-sugar toast; how loud dad listened to his records on the stereo or how Grandpa always cruised with the windows down, listening to Frank Sinatra. They talked about memories of times spent together, fishing in the creek, cracking jokes around a campfire or swimming at the beach. They talked about how the person showed up in their lives. They talked about the little things.

A recent post I saw on Facebook captured this idea well. It read: “You may think you are completely insignificant in this world. But someone drinks coffee from the favorite cup that you gave them. Someone heard a song on the radio that reminded them of you. Someone read the book that you recommended, and plunged headfirst into it. Someone smiled after a hard day’s work, because they remembered the joke you told them today. Someone loves themselves a little bit more, because you gave them a compliment. Never think that you have no influence whatsoever. Your trace, which you leave behind with every good deed, cannot be erased.”

This quote reminds me of another from Mother Theresa, who said, “There are no great deeds — just small deeds done with great love.”

And another: “Don’t ask God to send you a brilliant career, but rather ask him to show you the brilliance within you.” (Marianne Williamson, in her book “A Return to Love.”)

While roughly 20 million Americans are unemployed right now due to the global pandemic, my guess is that there are many of us feeling lost and aimless, as if some part of our identity has suddenly been stripped.

If, like me, you find yourself incessantly asking “What am I DOING with my life?” Then I urge you to reframe the question: Ask not what are you doing, but rather, who are you being? As the cliche goes: “We are human BEINGS. Not human DOINGS.” Am I being loving, compassionate and kind? Am I showing up for my friends and family? Am I being selfless, and making small loving gestures to the people around me? Am I joyful and seeking gratitude for what I have? Am I being patient and empathetic with others? Who am I showing up as in the world? 

During these strange and challenging times, this shift in my perception from doing, to being, has been revelatory. It has helped me brave each uncertain day with some level of direction and sense of purpose: to be a loving presence in a struggling world. I now find myself bringing a plate of leftover lasagna to the security guard at the front of my building, picking up groceries for my neighbor, reaching out to old friends whom I haven’t talked to in ages and planning virtual family reunions via Zoom. Of course, while I recognize such things don’t pay the bills, remembering you have value beyond your paycheck is perhaps even more important while you’re in the thick of your struggles.

While I am still diligently pursuing my career search on a daily basis, putting more emphasis on who I am being in the world, rather than what I am doing, has allowed me to approach the career search with less end-of-the-world anxiety, as my self worth is no longer contingent on my next job title. I recognize that I can be a giving, compassionate, quirky, authentic individual working in any kind of environment, or, no environment at all. Being that unique individual is far more important than what I am doing. And when I have died, and people speak at my funeral, that’s what I know people will remember.

— By Danielle Charbonneau | Freelance Journalist |