Down Time: Time to Discover What Matters

As a single parent with bills to pay, I couldn’t waste any time when I lost my job four years ago.

I searched Internet job sites from morning until night, posting my resume at site after site. Every morning I woke up early, just like on a “real” workday, ready for the day’s hunt. I studied want ads in the papers and e-mailed everyone I knew who might know of job opportunities. I returned calls and e-mails from potential employers and went on job interviews.

In short, I moved through those first few weeks on automatic pilot. But one unexpectedly epiphanic interlude soon changed everything.

Alone in the middle of a monotonous one-hour drive, I was forced to actually consider the thoughts and ideas swirling around in my head, without the distraction of sifting through job postings on corporate web sites.

What did I really want to do for the next few years and maybe decades of my life? What opportunity would best match not only my needs, but more importantly, the needs of my then-12-year-old son? How did I see our future unfolding?

I found myself lapsing into an almost prayerful meditation. There are so many factors to consider, I thought. What kind of work do I want to do? How far away from home (and my son) will I be comfortable working? How many hours a day can I work, knowing that my son’s school day ends at 3? What will my son do in the summers when I’m working?

Did I want to return to the corporate world, a world I’d left partly because of my disillusionment with it? Could I find a job where they’d allow me to work from home at least part of the time, in case my son was sick or needed a ride or if I wanted to attend a school event? My conflicting responsibilities confused my thoughts.

Then my mind drifted and I remembered that, when I’d left the business world a few years earlier, my plan was to do what I really loved: writing. And I had done that. For three years I’d worked at a job for which my primary responsibility was writing. I’d loved my work and was paid for it too!

And after commuting to work full-time for two decades, I’d also discovered the world of working from home: a world where there was actually more to life than the inside of an office. I experienced the simple pleasures of lunches with relatives, volunteering at my son’s school, and the enrichment that neighbors, friends and pets add to everyday life.

Best of all, I was home after school when my son was. I could welcome his friends into our home to do homework, watch TV, play cards and badminton and video games. The only minus about that job, the job I’d lost, was that it hadn’t paid much, which made bills much more difficult to handle. I’d definitely be less stressed if I could earn more.

Less financially stressed, that is. After a few years of working from home, I’d vowed that I’d never return to the corporate world. While a better-compensated office position would certainly relieve some of my monetary anxieties, was a higher salary worth giving up the day-to-day things my son and I had come to value in our lives? I’d really rather cut back on the treks to Disney World, I thought.

At last I felt that I was on to something meaningful, something significant, as I studied my own thoughts and feelings about – life; about what I valued, about what was important to my life and my son’s, about what we needed in this journey where you can’t see what’s coming around the next corner, but you need to believe that you can.

So I started to consider the possibilities.

I did like the stability, the benefits of corporate employment. Maybe I could find a position in a support area that wasn’t politically cutthroat. Plus the Internet and e-everything had exploded in the previous few years; maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to find a job that could be done just as easily from my home office as from the company office. And maybe it could involve writing.

Speaking of writing…here I was, out of work for weeks, and I hadn’t written a thing. Why not? Certainly I was filling much of my time with job-hunting, but what about taking advantage of this “down time” to pursue my dream of writing for magazines? Being a published author? Supporting us through self-employment, working on a schedule that fits our lives, instead of fitting our lives around a work schedule?

Life…I was drawn back sharply to the brutal knowledge that life can be heartbreakingly short. My son and I knew this firsthand because we’d lived through the horror of his father’s sudden death six years earlier, at the age of 45. Something like that changes your perspective on life forever.

My late husband’s untimely death, followed over the next several years by the deaths of my parents, taught me to lean on God, to rely on Him for strength when there was no place else to find it.

I didn’t know why all these heartbreaking things had happened to us, one right after another. But I came to appreciate that my belief in God, that the Catholic faith instilled in me by my parents, was somehow giving me the ability to keep going, to not give up when life seemed too discouraging, too sad. What a gift!

I’d learned that life can end tomorrow and that I didn’t want to waste it on things that didn’t really matter. I wanted to appreciate every moment, to wring every experience of joy from life that I could.

Most of all, I never wanted to regret that I didn’t do something that would have been best for my son and me. I wanted his recollections of our life together, of his childhood, to be happy ones that would help guide his future, not sad ones that would darken his adult life.

My trip was nearing its end, so I needed to conclude my reverie. For the first time since I’d lost my job, I felt as though I’d accomplished something, as though I had a clue again about what I needed to do.

In my mind I’d managed to construct a filter through which I’d screen every job opportunity from now on. My “down time” had finally given me a focus, something I hadn’t had time to develop before.

Maybe things had become clear because, during my unemployment, I’d repeated one brief prayer that had helped me through so many previous voids, through other “down times” in my life: put it in God’s hands. Another version of this is let go and let God. There is a certain peace in praying for God’s wisdom to guide your decisions, to admit that you don’t know what decision is best for you and to humbly ask for His help.

It’s also calming to acknowledge the fact that many of life’s events are simply outside of our control. Rather than “stressing” uselessly over these things, it’s far more effective to pray for God’s help in making good decisions, to give us the courage and determination to deal effectively with the cards we’re dealt.

One of my favorite prayers, by St. Francis de Sales, makes exactly this point:

Have no fear for what tomorrow may bring. The same loving God who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. God will either shield you from suffering or give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.

I guess drive time must be my time to think, because shortly after that road trip four years ago, I was again pondering the future as I traveled from errand to errand. Rebuckling my seat belt in the drug store parking lot, I looked up and my eye was caught by the statue of Jesus next to my parish church across the street.

The statue’s arms were extended in a warm, welcoming gesture. I immediately experienced the feeling that things would be all right, that we would be taken care of, that God’s caring arms were surrounding us.

“Down time” can be our time to reconnect with God. His light can help us to find the end of the tunnel, to see Him guiding our way.