After President George W. Bush extended unemployment insurance from 26 weeks to 39 weeks in March, critics charged that the measure would be very expensive and actually increase unemployment. But the critics missed the real danger: that millions of Americans might learn how delicious it is to be without work.
If you are of a contemplative turn of mind, I don't recommend becoming unemployed. The hole it leaves in the day allows for dangerously subversive behavior. My experience is a case in point.
I was laid off in March from my job as a marketing writer for a technology company in Manhattan. My employer provided a decent severance package, and I filed for unemployment, my maiden voyage on the dole.
After a few weeks of canvassing for job leads, with contacts and friends helping me, I found myself on a weekday afternoon at a loss over what to do next. For no reason at all, I wondered what Blockbuster might have to offer. It suddenly occurred to me that it was past time to review Sergio Leone's "The Man With No Name" trilogy, starring Clint Eastwood. As if in the throes of a great discovery, I hurried off to the store.
Over the next few days, I watched the films "A Fistful of Dollars," "For a Few Dollars More," and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." I had not seen them in many years, and I was astonished by their wit and poetry, and their willingness to teeter just this side of self-parody. I couldn't remember the last weekday I had spent like this, and it felt like taking a long breath of fresh air after years spent in a dungeon.
Within a few weeks, my first unemployment check arrived. Together with the severance package, the money would tide me over well except that I had other plans for my severance pay. It was already earmarked for an engagement ring.
I plunged into a diamond crash course on the Web, supplemented with visits to the Diamond District. My hopes for a quick score were dashed; separating the wolves from the sheep took time. My girlfriend began to wonder why I always called her from my cellphone. If I wasn't on job interviews, what was I doing?
After two weeks, I was exhausted, but I could tell a G-colored stone from an H, and guess carat size within a hundredth of a point. "You've looked at a lot of stones, my friend," said one merchant (who wasn't a friend). What better way to celebrate unemployment than getting engaged? My severance pay was mostly gone, but my bride-to-be was happy.
By this time, a prospective employer had contacted me, and we'd had our first interview. But a long stretch of time passed before the second interview. The company was apologetic, but I couldn't have been happier. My ideal scenario was to get the job but to have the process take just short of forever. I had become deeply protective of my joblessness.
My days had a regular structure, beginning with frequent workouts, after a few weeks of which I noticed my pants fitting better. The balance of the morning was spent in the job hunt, but by mid- or late afternoon the day was usually mine. Increasingly I found myself outdoors on a bench in the courtyard of my apartment complex, with a backpack full of books, magazines, and notepads. The weather could not have been finer. New York was experiencing an unusually warm April, and then an unseasonably cool May.
On my bench, the drudgery of the corporate world was banished. I read C.S. Lewis and Bernard Lewis, biographies of Gene Tunney the boxer and Seabiscuit the horse, "Christianity on Trial" and "The Killing of History." Each day I arrived at the bench with a sense of gratitude. I knew that if I did not get a job reasonably soon, finances would become a problem. But every other part of my life seemed to be experiencing a renaissance. My spirit was soaring.
After another long wait, I had a third interview with my prospective employer. At this point, the company was ready to move quickly, and they called within a few days, asking don't they always? if I could start next week. With feelings of relief and loss, I accepted.
The hardest part of modern corporate work has never been long hours, difficult people, or even monotony, but estrangement from the world of the spirit. Of course, to struggle in the world and earn one's bread and the respect of others, to furnish something useful, is no middling thing. Theologian Michael Novak, for one, believes it is a good deal more: "A life in business is creative.... Business is a source of endless personal challenge, testing intellectual and moral mettle in the crucible of practicality."
I am sure he is right. But I dare say that for many of us, the endless personal challenge of business lies in providing value for others, not ourselves. At times we need a respite, however it comes. I think it likely that I will recall my 12 weeks out of work as one of the most rewarding periods of my life.
Three months into the new job, I still daydream about my beloved bench, and the time that was all my own. The memory gets me through some hard days, some numbing conference calls. Most days, its image is fresh in my mind, the place at the end of my labors.
It's a good thing I landed another job so quickly, and not just for financial reasons. Thirty-nine weeks of fulfillment might have ruined me.