The Soul of Unemployment

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Posted on July 6th, 2011 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Social Issues, Theology, Topic of the Week
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Previously published at Baha'i Thought

Reading an editorial by Paul Krugman this morning got me thinking. Here's a taste of it:

"More than three years after we entered the worst economic slump since the 1930s, a strange and disturbing thing has happened to our political discourse: Washington has lost interest in the unemployed.

Jobs do get mentioned now and then — and a few political figures, notably Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, are still trying to get some kind of action. But no jobs bills have been introduced in Congress, no job-creation plans have been advanced by the White House and all the policy focus seems to be on spending cuts.

So one-sixth of America’s workers — all those who can’t find any job or are stuck with part-time work when they want a full-time job — have, in effect, been abandoned.

It might not be so bad if the jobless could expect to find new employment fairly soon. But unemployment has become a trap, one that’s very difficult to escape. There are almost five times as many unemployed workers as there are job openings; the average unemployed worker has been jobless for 37 weeks, a post-World War II record." (Read the whole thing here)

Reading this reminded me of a man I provided counseling to recently. It was a typical day at work for me. This man had lost his will to live and recently tried to kill himself. He had grabbed the sharpest object he could find and sawed his wrist while sitting on a beach on a cold rainy night. By the time he got to that beach he had lost his job, his home, and recently the couch he'd been allowed to crash on by a friend. He had nowhere to go, no money, no food, no hope. But what bothered him the most was not having a job. It was the one thing I had no power to give.

Research suggests that unemployment can have profoundly negative effects on mental health. Here are some examples from one study:

"The research is based on interviews with 2,170 people, 16 to 25 years old, and shows that young people that have been jobless for at least a year, have twice the risk of harming themselves or of suffering from panic attacks.

Also, it seems that half of young people with no job say that unemployment has caused them self harm and insomnia. About one in six young people believe that unemployment is as stressful as a family crisis and 12% say that they have nightmares because of it."

As I walked with this man through his personal hell, what struck me was that being unemployed was not just about money for him. It was about meaning. This man was telling me that he did not know who he was anymore or why he was on the planet. I was reminded of commentary by the Universal House of Justice on material suffering:

"It is not merely material well- being that people need. What they desperately need is to know how to live their lives -- they need to know who they are, to what purpose they exist, and how they should act towards one another; and, once they know the answers to these questions they need to be helped to gradually apply these answers to everyday behaviour. It is to the solution of this basic problem of mankind that the greater part of all our energy and resources should be directed."

Apart from apparently neglecting the problem of unemployment, I think that the politicians may be missing the meaning (some would say 'spiritual') dimension of this problem. Commenting on the spiritual reality of work, Baha'u'llah has written:

"It is enjoined upon every one of you to engage in some form of occupation, such as crafts, trades and the like. We have graciously exalted your engagement in such work to the rank of worship unto God, the True One."

If work is worship, widespread, long-term unemployment may prove to have mental and spiritual consequences for individuals and society that deserve serious consideration. It should become a part of national discourse about this problem. Certainly the circumstances contributing to the unemployment crisis arose from a catastrophic lack of spirituality.

"The principal cause of this suffering", The Universal House of Justice reminds us, "which one can witness wherever one turns, is the corruption of human morals and the prevalence of prejudice, suspicion, hatred, untrustworthiness, selfishness and tyranny among men."

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Phillipe Copeland is a Baha'i, a doctoral candidate in social work, a dedicated blogger, a husband and a father.


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