Seeking wisdom in tough times, without a job
(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Original content...

Sunday, August 31, 2003


I can't help but visualize the Bible's Wise Men when I think of the Secretaries of Commerce, Labor and Treasury recently descending upon the Midwest, laying down promises of jobs and growth, refund checks and future tax cuts.

And yet, the only thought that springs into my mind these days when I read the papers is, "How much worse is this going to get?" Between U.S. economy woes, continued high unemployment and increasingly distressing global unrest, I feel myself succumbing to a low-grade panic.

Sometimes, I feel as if I haven't been able to draw a deep breath since the day my husband, our chief breadwinner, came home eight months ago and told me he'd lost his job. "No one's fault, no reflection on your work," he was told. Reorganizations, cost-cutting, downsizing - that kind of thing.

Although it seems pretty lonely at times, our family is far from alone. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9.1 million Americans are currently unemployed, giving the nation a 6.2% unemployment rate. Since 2000, 3 million jobs have been lost across the country, including 80,000 factory jobs in Wisconsin.

"Chin up," the officials tell us, "the upturn has already begun." But, then again, they're the ones with jobs. Maybe they're not the people I want comforting me when life continues to bombard us with more bad news, as my husband continues to search unsuccessfully for a job in the besieged high-tech sector.

Africa shares the headlines these days with news of unemployment. At first glance, the former would seem to have little to do with the latter. But I can't help but derive a bit of solace from one in helping me deal with the other.

Sixteen years ago, I lived in Africa, leaving the padded comforts of my Midwestern home to teach English with the Peace Corps in the Central African country of Gabon. In spite of being a relatively prosperous African nation, there was no denying provincial Gabon was poor, by American standards.

A concrete house with a bed, table, four chairs and a vinyl couch was considered luxury. Skirts and shirts that people wore were so faded with use, you couldn't make out the original pattern or color. Dysentery and tropical diseases abounded.

If the residents of my town wanted to go somewhere, they walked, often for miles, often bare-footed. Unemployment was high, life expectancy low. Social Security, welfare benefits? Forget it.

Although my colleagues and I lived better than most, we still lived simply without television, air conditioning, computers, phones or washing machines. No one had surplus money, which was OK because there wasn't much to buy.

Time was the commodity people had the most of - time to relax and get plenty of sleep, walk the mile to friends' houses to visit. I spent many an evening gathered around friends' tables, over plain rice-based dinners and abundant, mercifully cheap beer.

We'd talk about Africa's seemingly hopeless struggle: the pervasive health problems, the lack of enough good jobs and corruption in the governments.

"How much worse is it going to get?" I'd ask, and there would be a shrug - "That's how it is" - from the Africans at the table.

For most of the world's population, this is how life is, not simply a crisis that will soon be resolved. The thought would sober me into silence. Then the host would put on some bubbly African music, another person would bring more beer to the table, and we'd continue the evening in that odd mixture of laughter, conviviality and insecurity that seemed to define my two years with the Peace Corps.

I discovered a purity of life in Africa that, upon my return to the U.S., I found hard to duplicate. Until now.

Once again, I have had to learn to live with less, live with insecurity. Although my husband and I have enough savings to keep the vultures from repossessing our home any time soon, we've had to cut back significantly on spending. No fancy vacation, trendy restaurant meals or new outfits.

We'll survive this trial. But it certainly isn't fun. In fact, it's downright lousy. I'm reminded of the shock I felt when I first moved to Africa, the incomprehension over the message that I would have to learn to live without things, even if they were things I wanted really badly.

And now, again, I want. I want, I want.

And I can't have.

Why is such a simple concept still so painful?

I'm learning to "Just say no." And there's something oddly liberating about it.

My newfound fiscal enlightenment, unfortunately, doesn't alleviate the insecurity or the fear that hovers around the fringes. I fret about whether our money will hold out, I worry about our government's policies, both domestic and international.

As I listen to the daily news, anxiety flutters in my stomach like a gang of angry butterflies.

"These are hard times," my friends and I all tell each other. And in spite of talk that things are looking up, manufacturing executives and electrical engineers are still being forced to take jobs as assistant managers at Radio Shack, while highly skilled factory workers bag groceries. Global outsourcing of labor will only continue to grow, stealing manufacturing jobs from the Midwest, technology jobs from Silicon Valley.

We Americans will adapt. It's one of the things we do best. New jobs will be created and the economy will eventually recover.

But I learned something else from the Africans: how to be patient and weather the storm of challenging times with dignity and grace. How to accept things the way they are, difficulties and all.

When I remember this, I look around at what my family does have now: adequate savings to squeak by, a home and lots of quality time together. My husband and I have the opportunity to sit in the backyard every night and watch our son frolic around, as the sun sinks slowly into the trees.

Like I did in Africa, I'm enjoying the purity of the simple moment. I think of my African friends - still there, still struggling - but surely finding time to play music and celebrate life. If you ask me, they are the true wise men.


Terez Rose is a writer who lives in Boulder Creek, Calif.

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