Monday, February 10, 2014

Back on My Feet, Unemployment, and Why Running Helps

So I’ve registered for my first race. It sounds pretty unabashedly awesome for a couple of reasons. First, the race involves wearing masks and getting beads while you run. This sounds a lot like Mardi Gras itself, except the beads are rewarded for running rather than chugging tequila and making questionable life decisions. Wearing masks will be a source of comfort as well since, during a run, my face often looks a lot like I DID just chug a bottle of tequila.

But the race is awesome for another reason. Before addressing that, though, I want to add on to my post on races to mention another reasons why races shouldn't intimidate me:

Races are usually charity events. People get together and run not just for the love of running, but also to help other people. So I don't think I should worry about having trouble; I imagine that runners have to be pretty awesome when most of their events are held to help others. And of course the Mardi Gras Chaser 5k is no different. The event, hosted by the Chicago chapter of Back on My Feet, conforms with their mission of using running as a way to establish positive life habits and get under-served individuals back on their feet. Hey, that’s the name of the charity!

This mentality seemed particularly appropriate for both my running life so far and my blog. As I mentioned in my first post, running has helped and continues to help me structure to my days. It keeps me focused and gives my life a tangible narrative of progress.

So today, in addition to talking about this race, I want to discuss an issue this charity addresses through its running programs: unemployment. But first, I want to make something VERY CLEAR:

I sit atop a big, shiny mountain of privilege regarding this topic.

Pictured: me, with my privilege
I have so much privilege, I can’t even check all of it because, try as I might to see it, some of it invisible to me. But like boarding a flight that charges for carry-ons, I’ll check as much as I can.

I’m a straight, cisgendered, white male. I spent my whole life in either an upper-middle or upper class family, and probably more in the latter category than I like admitting (which is a privilege itself). I CANNOT understand what unemployment looks like to someone else, much less someone with less privilege than me. I was never on the verge of starvation or homelessness, I had YEARS of educational self-esteem pushing me to keep going, and I had several supportive loved ones to fall back on as I struggled.

So how do I talk about how my experience compares with the mission of this charity? By focusing on one aspect of my challenge that is, I believe, universal to persons suffering from unemployment: momentum.

When I wrote about how I started running, I briefly mentioned that one of the hardest things was lacking the perspective to see progress. I was stuck. Running was progress, literally, and it became the one thing I had control of, and could just do, on a day to day basis. This was important, because the most insidious, unrelenting thing about unemployment for me was the boredom and what it entails. You just have so much time on your hands.

Now, I’ve heard some people say that “if you’re unemployed, your full-time job is finding a job.”

How I picture those people
Um, no. This statement could populate the entirety of northern Wales with little, head-shaking no-people. While you probably want to focus primarily on finding a job day to day, it is by no means appropriate to expect someone to apply to jobs for forty hours a week. First off, there aren’t that many jobs, unless you’re applying to literally everything. Second, for some people (myself included), applying to jobs is emotionally exhausting because we don’t like talking about ourselves or justifying obvious things. Why do I want to work here? You do pay with those fancy American greenbacks, right?

So no matter how many times I rewrote that cover letter or rethought that resume, I ended up with several hours a day with nothing to do. And since nothing-time became self-reflection time, I mainly thought about how terrible I must be to not have a job. It was a little like the Swamp of Sadness, and I was a little like Arthax.

Not even Atreyu could save me
It felt like I couldn’t make a difference. I was taking time to painstakingly fill out forms that I wasn’t sure anyone was going to read, imbuing the word choices in my cover letter with nuances that wouldn't stand out to the no one reading it, and going through job boards that overflowed with hundreds of entry-level positions that required years of experience, while all the time my resume sat there with no new experiences added.

Basically, I had no momentum. If I may introduce another big, messy metaphor (because I’ve never done that before), I was slipping around on ice, unable to stand up or move forward. Running, by giving me that iota of control, was new traction under my shoe, or the tread on a tire. By running every day, I could center what I did around actual progress.

Hey, will anyone read this application? Probably not, but I ran half a mile today. That’s half a mile that can’t be taken away. That’s half a mile more than I did yesterday. I’m going to run tomorrow as well.

Things snowballed (damn, lost the metaphor), and soon I was able to ask myself harder questions about myself and my career goals. I was able to identify what I wanted to do and where I wanted to work based on who I was. And knowing who you are, for me at least, came down to looking at where I’d been. If you’re slipping around on ice (metaphorically), you can’t draw an arrow through your movements. You can’t look forward or back; you just spin. Unemployment can put someone in that position, and Back on My Feet knows that. The program uses running as a way to give that control to someone and provide that valuable perspective. (They do other awesome things, too!)

That’s why I’m proud to run in this upcoming race, and any Chicago-based readers should as well! Even if running doesn’t represent the same things for you, we all know the positive force it can be in someone’s life.

Plus, beads!

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