One day, I was running a public policy research center that focused on how American workers, particularly unemployed workers, can be retrained through distance learning.
The next day, I found myself unemployed.
This was emotionally devastating. I had been unemployed only a few years earlier. Was job uncertainty to be the pattern for the rest of my life? For my wife, however, things were far more nuanced. Certainly, unemployment was a bad thing financially; and the fact that I was an emotional wreck made things far, far worse. On the other hand, Eti, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, knew that there were far worse losses a person could suffer.
So, several days into my unemployment, Eti said, “We have to turn your attitude around. We’ve always dreamed about taking the trip of a lifetime. I have the summer off. You don’t have a job. Let’s sell our house and use the proceeds to have the best summer of our lives. And we’ll bring a laptop with us, so you can look for work while we’re away.” And so we did.
“Simplify, simplify,” Thoreau wrote beside Walden Pond. Those words had a powerful impact on us.
So, beginning in March, needing to get the house ready for sale, we began to simplify our lives. For Eti, it was easy; if it wasn’t used almost daily, it was unneeded. For me, still feeling sorry for myself, divesting myself of our things simply added to the sense of loss. Some two thousand books collected over the past 40 years? Gone. Furniture? Gone. The artwork? Gone. Surplus pots, pans and dishes? Gone. The clothing we rarely wear? Gone. And on and on and on.
And then a funny thing happened. The more we gave to charitable organizations or to friends or acquaintances in need, the better we started to feel about ourselves. Jettisoning our possessions began to take on a life of its own, a life we felt increasingly good about. And I, in particular, started to feel less sorry about being unemployed. How could I be suffering economically if we have so much to give away? It made no sense. And so the shock of unemployment began to give way to a much greater focus on the assets that we did have: each other, our family, friends, and a smaller array of possessions that we actually use. We were, as psychologists say, increasingly coming to a good place both emotionally and mentally.
And then we caught two exceptionally lucky breaks. The first was that we were able to sell our house quickly, and at a good price. But where could we move that would be affordable? That’s where the second break came in.
Eti’s dad owned a house that he had been trying to sell for years, but the local real estate market was tanking. The house wouldn’t sell so he rented it to a succession of tenants, and the most recent announced they had to leave immediately. And so it was that Eti’s dad suggested that we come and live temporarily in the house he owned, provided we try to make the place look better for sale. We quickly said yes!
So, armed with the proceeds of the sale of our house, a decluttered physical and mental landscape, and the knowledge that we would have a place to which we could return, we tried to turn our lemon into lemonade by embarking on our three month trip of a lifetime. (But first, we got permission from Eti’s dad to allow friends of ours, who otherwise would have been homeless, to stay in his house while they were getting back on their feet and we were away.)
And so the adventure began. With few exceptions, on any given day we hadn’t a clue where we would be the following day. We started our journey in British Columbia, where we went to work shoveling horse manure out of stables – and to our surprise loved every minute of it. We did a lot of hiking, including to a folk concert that seemed to have attracted every aging hippie in Canada. From there, we went to Seattle, to visit our son and to continue our hiking adventures. I even played some of my Native American flutes in a Native American powwow.
Next, we studied Jewish texts with the ultra-Orthodox community of Lakewood, New Jersey. Why? Well, why not? After staying with friends and family in Connecticut and Massachusetts, we spent several weeks living in a small home atop a mountain in the extreme northeast corner of New Hampshire: no email, no internet, no telephone. On any given day we were far more likely to see moose and bears than other people. Then – stops in Philadelphia, New York City, and Columbus. We visited our grandson in Kentucky. We rescued endangered animals in rural Tennessee. We went boating in Maine. We discovered the shul in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, where my grandfather had been a cantor 70 years ago. We prepared food at our leisure and savored what we prepared. We watched the Perseid meteor shower from a mountain summit. We learned how to make moonshine whiskey.
In each place we visited, we made time to engage in job searches, in some sort of local social action, and in Jewish study.
In the fall we returned to our temporary home. Eti went back to teaching and I landed some paid consulting work and developed some promising job leads.
No, I do not wish to share social policy thoughts regarding unemployment and its impacts. The first few months of unemployment found us having a far more solid material cushion then most other unemployed Americans do. We had stronger family support and solid educational and professional networks. We were lucky, and we know it. But I can generalize about our experience in spiritual terms.
Our months on the road were the most profoundly, intensely, and consistently spiritually elevated of our lives. They started with despair and anger at the loss of a job, the unwanted sale of a home, and the divestment of most of our material possessions. They ended when we learned to take joy and what we hope will be lasting wisdom from that very experience. The loss became a gain. The sadness became gladness. Time lost from work became time found for parenting and for strengthening our marriage.
For months, we very keenly and increasingly felt God’s presence. We discovered that a person’s physical journey is also a spiritual journey. We learned that days that begin with the question of how I want to live my life today, and why usually are a lot more rewarding than days that don’t begin with that question. And we also learned that the most effective way to end our own pain is to try to heal someone else’s.
We now know that it’s not the quality or quantity of our possessions that defines a life. It’s the quality and quantity of true stories that we can tell others. And, finally, we also learned that driving on the backstreets with the top down at 35 miles per hour yields far better stories than does driving on an interstate with the top up at 70.