Monday, May 31, 2010

Up in the Air


Seriously, it's not that I don't have any original stuff. There's a deeper essay inside me, all about food being the thing we all obsess about most-- weight, to be more specific-- and how money takes the #2 spot.  Or was it the other way around?

But let's just settle for a movie. It's summertime.

Have you seen Up in the Air? If you haven't, think twice before reading this post, there will be spoilers and you're going to see it. Not that it's a must-see, but maybe it should be.  We hear what must be be real stories, told by actors who appear to be real people, stories about the torment of unemployment: the initial impact of losing a job; the mental anguish of facing foreclosure, the loss of status and purpose, bankruptcy and shame; suicide. Required reading? Walter Kirn wrote the book.  There's gossip about him not being invited to the Academy Awards.

Anyway.  If you're me and you travel a lot, the opening sequence is captivating-- aerial photographs like the ones I'm always snapping with my phone. Some of us really, really like flying, despite the hassle, the aggravation in line, the paranoia of security, the wait. The cancellations. I'm taking off for a couple of days this week, that's the plan, and my excitement is palpable. Some of the twitter in my belly has to do with being up in the air again.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) loves flying, too, the feeling of living out of a carry-on, paring down his possessions to what he can pack into a light-weight vessel on wheels. He is a motivational speaker, talks ad nauseum about the backpack, how if you filled one of these with all of your possessions, all that you have, all the things you own, packed in all of your friends, your family, your people-- you would find that you are mightily burdened.

All of this, he implies, the weight of living as a social animal, the choice to be grounded, is a burden.

Live like Ryan Bingham and set yourself free.

Has he got OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Sure, maybe. Or is he disordered with Schizoid or Avoidant Personality Disorder, fearful of people to the degree of self-imposed isolation? Nah. He speaks to people for a living, empowers them to be good with a solitary independence, tells us to look forward, unafraid. And he has relationships with women, he's George Clooney, for crying out loud, handsome and socially fluid.  He even falls in love. (The female supportive actors, Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga made the movie for me, not George, particularly)

Ryan has an agenda with that backpack metaphor, even if he believes in it. What he is really doing, when he tells people that life as a social animal is a burden is a verbal equivalent of slight of hand, a con.

He works for an outsourcing company. You may be familiar with these. They take the pinch out of unemployment, present you with the package, the severance, and point the finger to other sources of employment. But Ryan has the ugly job of having to tell people,
"You're fired."
He doesn't say it like that, he says it nicely. He relabels the experience:
"All great people have been let go."
Or,
"Now you have the opportunity to do what you've always wanted to do."
Or,
"Now you can be great, meet your aspirations."
If you've ever treated anyone who has lost a job, the same words, maybe, have come from your mouth. They can be soothing, they can be true. They are a Bandaid, you both know this, but you're not applying the Bandaid unless the patient has opened with the concept first, alluded to relief and desire to pursue a dream, can see the possibilities inherent in the dream. You both know that being let go means there's a likelihood you may lose everything, certainly much of the life you're accustomed to living, the one you have grown to know, maybe even love.

You don't lose your family, however. You don't lose your soul. You don't lose your goodness, all that is you, or you shouldn't, when you lose your job. We hear this from the actors who have lost their jobs in the denouement, at the conclusion of the film.

They speak into the camera to tell us the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say. This air of documentary makes the film a little grim, is the truth, but it's appeal is that is is so real. Some of us don't mind a little reality in our escapism, find it therapeutic.

In therapy, real people tell real stories, and when the story is about job loss, we talk primarily about how job loss can change one's role in life, identity. But it is changing all the time, identity, anyway. Change can be thrilling, but it can be painful, too, and in this case, the change of role, the challenge is gut-wrenching, a true test of one's mettle. We shrinks subtly suggest:
Don't let the test destroy you. Stay alive, stay well for your family, if not yourself, but do it for you, too. They can't take that away from you, who you really are, your essential goodness

This is a crossroads. Things will change. You will survive. What was that Spock line?

Oh yes. And prosper.
Perhaps.

And yet, to minimize what has been lost? Unfathomable, unconscionable, very bad technique. Platitudes are a condescension on the part of the therapist, or the employer, the hatchetman. Don't give people snake oil, don't hope they will fall for your politics. Now you can be great.

Now you will be broke. How is that great? How at all is that great?

When it comes down to money, everyone obsesses. Thus the job of therapy, when money is the crisis, is to increase denial, distraction, help a person draw upon old resources and find new ones, problem solve. We advise you to stay clear of self-pity, for this eats a person up from the inside out. Spirituality helps here, spiritual resolve to be a better person, not a bitter one, a force for good in the universe. Somehow.*

Attention to anything outside oneself, can be stabilizing. (But be careful here, pick your charities wisely). We don't say it, but we tiptoe around it, but we're hoping you'll get, that even if it is you who has lost the position,
It's still not all about you. Get out of bed. Do something. Anything. You'll be more tolerable to live with if you do.
Job loss is stress, in no uncertain terms, and managing it an art of good problem solving, varied coping strategies, and surely, supportive relationships.

So nurture these especially, the relationships. And while you're nurturing, grab some dinner with friends. Maybe share a salad.

therapydoc


*Spiritual stuff-  I originally put up some of the cognitive therapy that goes into this, but took it down, sorry. 

4 comments:

Wonderingsoul said...

Hey TD?

Speaking of spirituality...

"Maybe we suffer," she told me, "so that when we die, others will hear stories about us, will learn what it really means to live."

... Makes me think of the life Jesus lived...
Lots in that.

Margo said...

This is really well-written, and there is lots of encouraging stuff in here to boot. I also thought that film had an incredible script, SUCH good acting, and balanced the depressing parts pretty well with intelligent humor. And as you say a therapist shouldn't, it doesn't talk down to you, minimize anything. Loved it, love you. (and let's not pretend my boyfriend George didn't rock)

abroadermark said...

Now I really want to see that movie!

I like the idea that going through tough times is a sort of test. I also like to think of the difficulties we face in life as a sort of molding or shaping process - the Old Mighty teaching us to be who He intended us to be.

So, why did you take down the cognitive therapy stuff? I liked it. Oh, and I really, really like your blog. But I've said that before, haven't I? :)

blogbehave said...

Soon after I saw Up in The Air, a client brought in a packet she was handed at her exit interview. The packet, the folder, had an entirely new meaning to me, thanks to the movie. In the past, I saw those packets as thoughtful and helpful. "oh, how nice of the company to care so much." I now see them as potentially such, but mostly as something to distract the employee while the employer gives him/her the boot.