Last November, I got laid off, COVID, and dumped in the same week.
It was a pretty lousy week.
I sat in bed, locked behind my bedroom door, surrounded by half a pharmacy. Quarantine meant I couldn’t sit face-to-face with my (ex?) partner to hash out what had occurred. I couldn’t go to the gym to hide from it all in sweat and ache. And I couldn’t even take a walk to let whatever I was experiencing move through my body and onto the concrete sidewalk.
Instead, I had to sit with it all. Just sit.
Sit and stir.
For months, I’d been riding high on the fumes of a new job. A job that meant my income, at the time of great inflation, inflated three times. And, it turned out, the work was good.
Sure, I didn’t like 8 a.m. meetings on Mondays, unclear directives from senior leadership, or the fact that no one seemed to read the many “one-pagers” I was asked to write. But I was making money. I was leading interesting projects. Years of hard work were (literally) paying off. I felt I was getting what I deserved: just desserts after many years’ slog.
So when I woke up with COVID after a confusing argument with my girlfriend, I wasn’t entirely disheartened.
And when a note came from the CEO (“please attend an emergency meeting”), I wasn’t worried. I knew I’d be fine.
Only, I wasn’t.
Pale skin cast against the freckles of an unwelcome beard, the CEO stared at us from his Zoom square. “After this call,” he said. “Everyone will receive an email. For 39 of you, it’ll mean termination.”
And with that – whoosh – an email arrived in my inbox. Subject line: “Today is your last day…”
Yet instead of rage, sadness, or worry, I felt… Nothing.
I joined some goodbye calls. I signed out of all my accounts. I cleaned up my computer desktop and tried to salvage some “evidence of impact” for future job interviews. I laughed nervously and told my colleagues how much I appreciated them. I read over the email a dozen times. I told myself, “It’ll be fine,” “it is what it is,” and “you always hated those 8am meetings.” But more than anything else, I felt numb.
I eyed my bank account: it wasn’t empty. I called my kid in and explained. She seemed concerned. I texted my (ex?)girlfriend. She seemed pissed. I suspected, in their reflections, that I should be feeling something – rage, or hurt, or worry – but I couldn’t find a pulse.
I went for an (unsanctioned) walk. The ground beneath my feet was as hard and motionless as ever.
Still: I felt nothing.
When we were kids, they said, “Do what you love.” Later, that became, “Find your purpose.”
I’d always known my purpose. Or I thought I did. It involved writing. But because of a series of experiences in my twenties (some might call them “failures”), I’d lost track of what that meant.
I was a dreamy kid. I liked picking grass, singing songs, and folding leaves. I did well in school because I was smart, and I appreciated the approval of teachers, parents, coaches, scoutmasters, and friends. Work for work’s sake never moved me; grit never made sense on its own – but if I understood why I was doing something, or felt that it fit within an idea I had of myself (a “good kid,” a “smart kid,” an artist, a writer), or made the people around me happy, I’d rise to the occasion.
Theoretically, I understood work was necessary as a matter of survival, but I didn’t see how a thing as visceral as survival was connected to most of what adults seemed to “do” for work.
So when I got out in the “real world,” I looked for what pleased my inner child. And that child wanted to write.
I have a distinct memory of “why” I wrote as a teenager: I wanted to find a way to describe how I felt. I wanted to get all those heavy, yucky feelings in my heart out onto the page. Maybe, I thought, that would help me feel less alone, or less disconnected. Maybe that would help me feel less overwhelmed, or less confused. Maybe it would help me feel less. Whatever it was, it was what I wanted.
Is it a surprising that such a therapeutic drive made for a difficult livelihood?
As hard as I beat my head against the wall of writing (and I had bruises) I couldn’t quite make it click. I did it: I published, I made money; I interviewed bands and writers; I wrote essays; I received positive attention. I even got assignments to write for newspapers that my uncles read at breakfast.
Yet something wasn’t clicking. It wasn’t enough money, it wasn’t dependable; there was no flow. It wasn’t the right kind of writing. I couldn’t break into the next level or the next publication or the next echelon.
I ended up feeling angry, frustrated, and stuck. I was also broke.
Something wasn’t clicking and that something was me.
We all know why the caveman hunts. We know why the spider spins its web. But in modern life, with all its inessential bungle, it’s hard to feel in your guts why an accountant files a certain form, why a mid-level strategist writes another “one-pager,” or why a writer has to send a proposal to an agent to get approval to submit a book idea to a publisher’s assistant.
For me, the purpose of writing was so tied up in my experience of the heart, that doing it as a job felt worse than not doing it – it offended my purpose. It wasn’t as bad as a job-job, I thought (oh, how proud I was), but it was eroding my core battery. Trying to make purpose into providence was becoming a desecration of the one thing that had felt pure and true.
I thought writing would be a concrete, adult version of what I did as a kid: daydream, play, and feel. But the difference between those things and writing as an adult job – really writing, to pay the bills – began to feel insurmountable. It wasn’t dreamy, or playful, and it was almost never fun.
I slogged, and I struggled, and the more I did it, the harder it got. Harder to make a living, harder to give it my all. Harder to give it anything. If writing was my “purpose,” I asked, why couldn’t it pay the bills? Why was it so hard? Why did it make me feel so bad?
If you were my friend, mother, or therapist between 2005 and 2015. I came to you with these questions time again and time again. I ran myself into the ground with them. I dug a hole, jumped in, and then kept digging. Eventually, I hated writing and I hated myself for even wanting to write.
So, faced with this dilemma, I did what people do: I found a way to make it impossible for me to write.
I got married. I adopted a child. And then I got a “real” job. And the job I got – high school teacher – was so hard and so all-consuming, that writing became the furthest thing from my mind.
Here’s the truth: I was a good classroom teacher, but I hated it. I cared about my students and I believed it was my duty to give them the best I could. But I had to learn so much so fast, had to create so much material, had to present so many lessons, grade so many papers, pay attention to so many stimuli, that I could hardly hold my head up when my alarm went off at 5 a.m.
There was no question that what I was doing was purposeful. But every time the bell rang I felt my soul cry out. When we were given lists of required actions, I wanted to jump out of my skin. When staff meetings went even a minute over, I chafed and wanted to scream. When I had to spend Sundays writing lesson plans instead of hanging out with my friends or my kid, I boiled in rage.
I felt like a victim, and I hated myself because I’d failed to be a self-liberator when I’d had the chance to “live my purpose.”
I was rageful, resentful, and stuck. I would not let myself off the hook.
Yet, I made my way out of that classroom – first by coaching teachers, then by building events for them, then by taking my educational skills and selling them to tech companies who wanted to teach their own. I took my experiences and made them work for me. With grit and fortitude, I doubled and then tripled my income, found ways to repackage what I’d learned, and made my life more interesting, more dynamic, and more meaningful – despite whether it was “purpose-aligned” or not.
Battles fought and won; happiness (and wealth) unlocked – right?
So why, then, when I was laid off, without pomp or warning, without plans or padding, did I not seem to care?
Why was I numb?
In moments of great tension (like a breakup), I usually have two modes: anger, or eloquence. This time I had neither. It was like I’d been told that my dinner reservation had been canceled, but I could sit at the bar and eat peanuts. I shrugged: not ideal, but whatever.
Except it wasn’t whatever.
I’d had a good job. A great job even. Interesting, challenging, cool. I liked doing almost all of it (except those damn 8 a.m. meetings). But I’d convinced myself that if I stopped doing it, very little would change in the world.
One tech product would be marginally less effective. One bank account would be significantly less plump. A lot of stress would wash into my life (I’d have to find health insurance, I’d need to network, I’d have to look for a new job) but the world would knock on at the same pace and the butterflies and bullfrogs would continue to flutter and ribbit.
In other words: If I wasn’t writing – who really cared?
My obsession, both with “purpose” and with my purpose, was getting in my way. There it was: like a sunglasses-wearing tourist photobombing all my gainful employment; a stain on all my dress shirts; an internal Instagram feed whispering “your life could be better” with every neuron pop.
And now I sat in bed, locked behind the door to my own bedroom, amidst a pile of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, feeling nothing at all.
Here’s where I present the wisdom buried in my lack of feeling. Here’s where I tell you that my numbness passed and I was filled with righteous indignation or simmering rage. Or that when the clouds parted I was able to lock into some deeper truth, some essential diamond of who I am and what I’m meant to do in this world.
But that would come later. When the existential fear of not having enough money would kick in. When the need for survival finally connected to the need to write one-page reports.
At that moment, though, that day in bed, I stayed numb. And that numbness frightened my daughter and angered my girlfriend. That numbness risked the end of more than just a job.
But that numbness, I see now, was meant to keep me safe. That numbness was borrowed from a younger me, a me who didn’t want to feel anger or hurt or shame; didn’t want to face the reality of what it meant to write purposefully, and what it meant to fail at something hard and uncertain and deeply, deeply desired.
That numbness was meant to keep me small because smallness felt safer than exploding into rage. It was the same smallness that told me that to “be a writer” meant one specific thing, that my “purpose” was one childish way of relating to the world – through play, through dreaminess; by being chosen to not participate in the adult rat race. The same smallness that refused to be open to what showed up in my periphery. That refused to see a pivot as an opportunity and instead saw it as purposeless, as digression, as losing my way.
Numbness was gauze I wore over a historic injury. Numbness was my attempt to return to where I’d started without grieving where I’d been.
Numbness was keeping me from experiencing what I actually wanted: a wild, exuberant, painful, shit-stained, confusing, full life.
What does purpose feel like: does it feel like want? Does it feel like fuel? Does it feel like fire? Does it feel like fortune?
When I was a young man writing, it felt like certainty and desire. When I was a 30-something teaching, it felt like mockery and theft.
Now, on the other side of the layoff, on the other side of the classroom, on the other side of “life as a writer,” I wonder if I misunderstood purpose entirely.
I thought of purpose as a brick thrown through my front window with a note attached. I picked up that brick, turned the note over, and read: here’s your purpose. Then I swept up the broken glass and got on with my self-appointed violence.
But maybe, I think now, purpose is the distant shuffling of a butterfly’s wings — you can’t hear it, or see it, but it’s somewhere, quietly working its influence on your life: aloft, free, beautiful, delicate, and not long for this world.
One day in church with my girlfriend, the pastor says, “Purpose isn’t yours. It’s God’s.” And it hit me: I threw the brick.
I wrote the note and I chucked it through my own window. Then I refused to clean up the mess.
Perhaps purpose is like love – a magic thing that we think we discovered, but which we actually just noticed as it appeared in our lives. We can’t define it, we can’t create it. We can’t hold it in our hands. But maybe, if we’re lucky, we can see it working through us.
Sure, some people can get paid for it, can build it into an empire that pays the bills and buys food, and sends their kids to college. But we can’t force that part, and we can’t make it all about us. You can’t tame a butterfly; if you catch it you kill it. It’s as simple as it is harsh.
The purpose of purpose is purpose.
Which is what? Nothing. Being. Existing. Movement. Breath.
If we treat purpose like a brick, it brutalizes what purpose is meant to activate. It defeats the purpose.
I had to let it go. I had to stop caring about it. I had to stop chasing it. I had to let it be in me like air. Moving. Flowing. Nourishing. Vital — but unseen.
It used to feel so good to write, before I tied every passage to a brick.
What feels good now?