I was only an observer in this story, and not one at close range. Still, I found the episode instructive. A friend of mine had made a major change late in his career, which involved a cross-country move. Yes, he needed the income, but his main motivation for the switch wasn't money. He respected the organization he joined. They valued the same ideals. And he liked the challenge. His job entailed heading a new program in a field only partly familiar to him. The program itself marked a new direction for the organization.
Initial reviews gave him high marks, and the disparate elements of the project were coalescing, when, a number of months into the venture, the organization reversed course, abandoned the program, and laid him off. Several other acquaintances were laid off about the same time.
How did he react? Unlike some of the others who grew bitter at the employer, this man stayed upbeat. We spoke shortly after his layoff. Not a trace of anger or resentment, despondency or defeat, came out. Quite the opposite. He was happy with all he'd learned in the past several months. Grateful to the organization for his time with them. Committed to keep on improving his newly acquired expertise. So it didn't seem surprising when he later emerged as a sought-after speaker and author of several books on that very field. It has become for him a successful second career.
As reports of layoffs continue to surface, I keep recalling my friend's experience and try to glean lessons. The most obvious ones: Stay free of bitterness and keep expecting good. Both those qualities help speed any rebound. There's something more, though: We never want to stand still. That means honing one's skills, expanding one's understanding. That means finding ways to improve, even during a layoff.
Christ Jesus' parable of the talents seems the best road map here. You'll recall from the parable a master about to depart on a long journey. He gives three servants differing numbers of talents. ("Talent" was a term for an amount of money. It still stands for something of worth.) One servant receives five talents. Another receives two, and the last servant, one. The first two servants employ the talents, double their number, and have them ready for the master on his return. He blesses them. The last servant buries his single talent, discloses this to the master on his return, receives a rebuke, and looses even the one talent (see Matt. 25:14-29).
The founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, once wrote, "The talents [God] gives we must improve" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," pg. 6). I stumbled over that for a long time. How could I improve something God gave? Wouldn't it be perfect already? Then I came across a definition for "improve," dating back to Mrs. Eddy's days. In addition to the more familiar meaning of "increase or make better," "improve" also meant "to use or employ." The passage blossomed in significance.
The more we glimpse our capacities as God-bestowed rather than personally crafted, the easier it is to see an unwilting demand for them - and for us. After all, an eternally wise creator isn't going to saddle us with obsolete talents. Perhaps we have a capacity to reason intuitively and insightfully even when we have only partial information. Or, maybe we have a strong sense of punctuality. We always show up on schedule and deliver the goods on time. These are talents with a divine basis. They derive from God, the Soul and Spirit of us all. And they are definitely things we can improve - employ - even while laid off.
Actually, both kinds of improvement have a place. As we improve - put to use - the talents God gives, we do find those talents improving, increasing, as we get better at embodying them. Any impulse to bury our talents or to sink ourselves in a puddle of self-pity evaporates. Instead, we grow in what we bring to the workplace. Our contribution increases in value. Layoffs cease to loom as home-threatening or career-damaging events. They serve only as times to regroup and magnify what God has already imparted to us - talents that fit us to be improved employees. Not surprisingly, as was the case with my friend, good career moves open up. We progress.