My husband works very hard to support our family and recently has been down and unmotivated in his work. He feels that the company he has put years of his life into is crumbling apart and that his time and energy were invested without a proper return.
I have told him that work does not define who he is, but I think that he really does define himself by how successful he is in the workplace. It's hard to see him so deflated, especially when things are down in the world at large and that this is not a direct result of something he did or did not do.
Please tell me what I can do to help him through this time. I love him dearly and share his pain and want so much to help.
My dear reader,
Since the time you posed your question, the global economy has taken a significant downturn, causing the loss of many jobs. Financial difficulties are ubiquitous. The concern you voice is relevant to the breadwinners of many families in the current crisis. The impact and implications have been huge. People have had to reassess, cut back, and make major adjustments. Virtually every precinct has been affected. Charities and nonprofits are hurting. Many financial institutions have defaulted or collapsed. We are in an era of government bailout of companies and financial institutions.
In the midst of these dire tidings, a number of weeks ago we had a reprieve, a momentary relief. A news bulletin of a plane crash landing in the Hudson River took center stage and grabbed everybody's attention. Pictures and images of what was termed a "miraculous" landing, that spared the lives of over 100 people, was on the front burner, eclipsing all else. The media paraded stories of a heroic pilot and a dedicated crew. Interviews with survivors brought out a simple but unmistakable message. "It's so good to be alive! We're so grateful – so appreciative. We prayed so hard. God was good to us."
When told to brace themselves for a crash landing, no one was thinking of the economy or their financial portfolios.
Stepping back to take in the big picture, there was a glaring contrast between the preceding days of gloom and doom, and the accounts of the joy emanating from those who found themselves privileged to see another day. The shift in mood and perspective was amazing. Our society had gone through a reality check. Indeed, when life is threatened, nothing else matters. We can be sure that no one on that plane, when told to brace themselves for a crash landing, were thinking of the economy or their financial portfolios. Certainly, anyone hearing or reading the reports of this incident had to have experienced a moment of sobriety -- of optimism, of exhilaration, of feeling that life is indeed good and, with God's help, will get even better.
The problem is that the "miraculous" and flashes of concomitant inspiration don't last very long. To be truly inspired (in spirit), in an enduring way, would require that access to a greater truth be forged by plumbing the depths of our being. Most often, it is in the process of meeting the challenges of our lives that we gain the insights that last and change our thinking in a permanent way. Meaningful priorities are established, it seems, when the occurrences and tests we are subjected to force us to weed out what is not important from that which is.
A wise elderly woman put it this way, "When one is healthy, he has many wishes and desires. When one is ill (Heaven forbid), he has only one wish – to get well." No one will argue that when confronted by ultimate issues, the list of needs and wants becomes irrelevant. Life is reduced to basics.
The struggle with adversity transforms a person at a core level. Banalities will never hold the same sway in this individual's life. The ability to differentiate between illusion and what is really important has forever been carved into his soul.
Men at Work
Moving on to your question, dear reader, living with a husband who is suffering the effects of a frustrating job or no job at all requires perspective. For starters, gender differences must be acknowledged. A woman is, by nature, drawn to the inner stage of life. She impacts life from the inside out. Her domain, first and foremost, though by no means exclusive, is the private one. Hence, the fact that ultimately, her greatest source of fulfillment is husband and family comes as no surprise. Studies have shown that even those women who had devoted the best years of their life to achieving "success" in the outside world admitted that at the end of the day, what touched their core in an essential way was a product of the inner realm of their existence. This is the general rule of thumb.
In counter distinction, men are the proverbial hunters. Their primary focus is from the outside in. The "By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread" statement by the Almighty to Adam upon his being banished from Paradise was more an introduction to the new reality of his existence than a curse. It informed man of a world where they would have to hustle, be creative, and manipulate the natural order of things to eke out a living and provide for themselves and their families.
A man, perforce, judges his self-worth by how well he performs in the outside world.
Since this was their mandate, successfully and effectively negotiating this task became man's primary source of gratification. Thus, the male ego, if it is to feel good, requires competence in bringing home the "hunt." Hence, when the reader tells her husband that he need not "define himself by how successful he is in the workplace," she is mistakenly projecting her feminine thinking onto a male ego where it is not relevant. A man, perforce, judges his self-worth by how well he performs in the outside world.
In a perfect world, where illusions are stripped away, man would recognize the illogic of his thinking. But as long as we live in this "olam" (the Hebrew world for world) that draws its definition from the root word meaning 'concealment,' reality remains elusive. A human being's most basic need is to make a difference, and leave one's mark. To a male, the market place is the venue of choice for that venture. When the returns on their efforts are not forthcoming, men become disaffected towards everything in life. Clearly, it isn't that a wife, children, parents, friends, and relationships aren't important, but, counterintuitive as it might be for a woman, these are not the primary source of his fulfillment.
Consider the following real-life example: Susan called about her father, Jack, a savvy businessman who she suspected was now suicidal. She related that he had invested the family's fortune with investors who supposedly had "impeccable" credentials. When the financial meltdown hit, the investments were totally wiped out, and with them Jack's entire fortune. In addition to feeling responsible for the loss of everyone's material resources, present and future, he had, additionally, always seen himself as leaving a legacy for his children and grandchildren. He fancied himself the provider of the family, their guardian angel. Now, with regret and recriminations being the only thing left, Susan was fearful that he saw no reason to continue living.
My husband called Jack and started the conversation by sympathizing with his plight. He did not marginalize his anguish or the significance of his dashed hopes and dreams. He did, however, urge him to see the bigger picture. My husband suggested that instead of a legacy of material wealth that he sought to leave for his progeny, he might leave them with a legacy of courage. He could bequeath to them a very important and essential lesson in life – a perspective on how one rises above overwhelming odds, above the waves that threaten to engulf them. He can, by personal example, blaze a trail for them of how one copes with life when it doesn't follow our script. He could model courage in the face of adversity, the temerity to go on despite hardships, drawing on the knowledge and faith that when one door closes, if one but perseveres, another will open. My husband recommended that he might explore learning opportunities to further his Jewish education, a pursuit he had always dreamed of but for which he never had time.
To his credit, Jack pulled himself together and re-embraced life. He invested his days with spiritual and substantive pursuits. Today, he refers to the painful events of the past as a "wake-up call" to reorder priorities. He speaks of having learned that to concede the running of the world to the Master of the universe is, at the end of the day, a most liberating act. His children and grandchildren are proud of Jack. To them, he is a hero. Jack has negotiated a most difficult paradigm shift, and in the process given them a proud legacy.
How to Help Your Husband
Dear reader, your husband is fortunate to have a wife "who loves him, shares his pain, and wants to help." These are the most powerful factors in the creation of a positive context for moving past the shadows of his current situation. In a sense, you are providing the glimmer of hope in what he perceives as his dark tunnel. It's not what you are going to say that will make a difference. Nor is there anything you can do to fix it. Men resent and are resistant to the women in their life who offer unsolicited advice and who assume that they have all the answers. If you do have ideas, present them in subtle question form, such as, "Do you think such-and-such might be useful?" Or, perhaps the reader might discreetly consult with people who might be helpful. Be sure that should anyone have constructive suggestions, that they be the ones to offer them.
Husbands typically like to run their own show, and it doesn't serve their manhood to have their affairs directed by his wife. The feelings of frustration notwithstanding, women need to understand and accept this as a fact of life. This is not a personal issue. It does not reflect nor should it be construed as a husband's disregard for the opinion of his wife. It should not be taken personally. It is just the way they are.
Everyone needs to hear the words, "I believe in you," and never more so than in times of self-doubt.
I would recommend that the reader focus on her "way of being" with her husband. She should try to sustain an upbeat tone, optimism, and most importantly, an attitude of respect towards him in all myriads of ways, big and small. Everyone needs to hear the words or the nonverbal approximation of the words "I believe in you," and never more so than in times of self-doubt. A caring wife should find ways to praise her husband within earshot of her children for whatever acts of kindness he performs on their behalf, i.e. "You're so lucky to have a father who plays with you, does homework with you – is so honest – has so much integrity – such a wonderful sense of humor," etc., etc. The point is that focusing and drawing attention to the many blessings that your husband brings to the family will help him realize that while things currently are difficult in his corner, and though he may perceive himself as a failure, those who love and respect him don't share that view. They believe in him and are firmly committed to him for the long haul.
The practice of gratitude is critical. This does not imply denying the problem or the suffering. Nor should one try to navigate harrowing times with the cliche that, "that which does not kill us makes us stronger." As a resentful woman in the throes of severe tribulations shot back, "True. But sometimes that which does not kill us can beat us up and leave us in a ditch." Moreover, it usually doesn't help to remind someone in misery that others have it worse. To suggest to someone that they should ask for no more of life than basic survival is unlikely to bring them much solace. The one that does work, however, is cultivating an appreciation of what is right in front of us, right now, even if we don't know that we can count on it tomorrow. "I have everything I need today" is a mantra of gratitude that can get us through every day, moment by moment.
My Blind Father
My father, of blessed memory, was a Talmudic scholar of note, a world-class orator, a man possessed of great wisdom and a magical personality. He was one of the primary sources of inspiration in my life.
At age 69, he was stricken with macular degeneration and was rendered virtually blind. As was his custom prior to the onset of this condition, he would sit in a room surrounded by the sacred tomes that had preoccupied the bulk of his days and hallowed his existence. The heartbreaking irony, however, was despite that his beloved holy books were right there at his fingertips, he could not read nor study them. They were so close, yet totally inaccessible. He was completely dependent on others, who on occasion would grace him with a few moments of reading to him.
What was awesome to me was that despite this terrible depravation, my father maintained his equilibrium. On one occasion, I expressed my admiration for his magnificent handling of so unfortunate a situation. My father replied that it was a matter of perspective. He shared that his own father had passed away at age 69. He reminded me that our Sages counsel that when a child reaches the age when their parent departed from this world, that they would be well advised to reflect on their own mortality. My father confided that he had a feeling that he too would have been judged ready to leave this world, but that mercifully, the Heavenly court decided to commute his sentence by giving him instead a state of blindness, which, according to our Sages, is an attenuated form of death – the death of the vital capacity to see. Therefore, he concluded, despite the ordeal of his blindness, he felt fortunate. Deprived of sight, he said, did not deprive him of the privilege to enjoy children and grandchildren.
On one occasion during this period of time, I was consulted by someone seeking the source for a reference for a certain issue in the commentaries on Torah. Not conversant with the particular matter, I turned to a number of people, and they too replied that they would need time to research it more extensively. I was visiting my father at the time. On a whim, I asked my father if by any chance he recalled where that particular reference might appear. Without a moment's hesitation, he directed me to the source that was indeed the exact location for the reference. I was astounded. Although he hadn't had access to the text for so long a time, nonetheless, he summoned the information which had evaded several other sighted and substantive scholars. I expressed my delight and admiration, and though until then I hadn't noticed any display of self-pitying emotions on his part, I could see his eyes moisten. His remark to me was, "This meant a great deal to me too." Indeed, every person has a need to feel competent and equal to life – especially in their chosen field.
Dear reader, navigating life with a distraught and depressed husband can be harrowing and draining. It is imperative that while trying to help your husband that you remember to put a support system in place for yourself. For the nurturer and the caregiver to keep nurturing and giving, they must replenish their own reservoir of strength. The biggest and the best amongst us cannot run on empty. Consider the following suggestions:
- Find someone to talk to, a safe place to voice and share your concerns and apprehensions.
- Avail yourself of spiritually affirming materials, i.e. books, CDs, classes, etc. They will hopefully lift and feed your spirits and keep you going.
- Pray to the Almighty to continue giving you strength and to give your husband the wherewithal to find true fulfillment, and a rewarding vocational pursuit, in his life.