Of Layoffs and Blind Beginnings

Smoky severance

Phil, the boss-man of this Honeywell department, sent his assistants around the entire floor to call us to a meeting. It was just before lunch. He emerged from his smoke-filled office, stubbing his cigarette in the ashtray near the door.

“We had to lay people off,” he said. “We’ve already talked to those affected, but this is a tough time. Please be respectful.”

Phil’s eyes scan around the men and women gathered among the cubes and aisles. Then he went back into his office. He lit a cigarette and closed the door.

I watched as friends and colleagues packed their photos, coffee cups, and office toys into cardboard boxes. This was the third or fourth wave of layoffs gutting their way through the company. No one was surprised. The surprise was for any who stayed. We all assumed it was only a matter of time until it happened to us.

Things have changed in the intervening decades. For one thing, fewer bosses wield steely control from a smoke-filled corner office. Layoffs happen by tweet these days or by mass email—both seem inhumane. A conversation is called for. At least.

But revenues and hiring still go up. Then revenue falls, and the tearing away of valuable human employees begins. That is our bargain with late-stage capitalism, and it is never pleasant.

One thing that has not changed is the palpable sense of defeat followed by the disorientation of “What am I going to do now?” While it is easy to say and hard to practice, the flip side of the dead-end layoff is indeed an open avenue you had never noticed.

Feeling your way forward into your own story

Freelancers can offer a hopeful word to those facing a layoff: a new thing is coming. We can say that with certainty because our experience is that a new thing must come, and it has to come, and it will arrive. Layoffs take a psychic toll: lack of energy, depression, binge eating, everyone has their own version of curling into the fetal position.

But at some point, things turn. A call is returned. Some new possibility piques your interest, and you suddenly see a new way to combine your talents, experiences, and specialized knowledge.

At some point, you find yourself saying, “This just might work.”

As an occasional writer of short stories, I find this turn from defeat to “What’s next?” powers many of my stories. I am eager to see how my characters react after their tumble down a mountainside. We (my character and me) pick our way through a boulder-strewn field, hitting shins and bumping toes and taking wrong directions until, gradually, the stones get smaller and the right direction appears.

This is one case where real life happens in the same way: feeling your way forward. Everything is tentative until you see the path emerging from the mist.

For those friends and colleagues experiencing layoffs today, I offer two suggestions:

  • Take time to see the good of your job and your faithful colleagues again. Take all the time you need.
  • Know that a new thing is on its way toward you. For real.


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