Some people feel dizzy at the mere thought of it. Others see images of their children starving. Still others envision the home for which they've worked falling into the hands of a greedy banker. For these types of people and countless others, being fired ranks high on the list of primary fears.
In a society that determines your self-worth by whether or not you earn a paycheck, being fired can be a traumatic experience. But in Washington, where your job is tantamount to your identity, it can mean becoming a nonperson. It's a well-known fact that the first thing people ask you at parties in Washington is, "Where do you work?" or, if you're a government worker, "What's your GS-level?" Without a job, the doors of banks are perennially closed. And while landlords have been described as many things, they've never been known to be sympathetic to people who've lost their jobs.
Of course, the most recent highly publicized firing was Margaret Heckler's as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But I have several friends who are not as well-known who have recently lost their jobs, too.
Depending on your age, being fired affects you in different ways. If you're 20 or 25, being fired or even walking out on a job is not necessarily traumatic. A new job for an unsettled young person is an adventure. Young people can be idealistic because they probably are not yet saddled with mortgages and car notes.
At 45, being fired may feel like the start of a long trek to the glue factory. It might involve career changes or mark the end of a dream. After one friend created a nonprofit health organization and built it into an international operation over 15 years, she found herself suddenly ousted when her board of directors abolished her job. "I felt like I had lost a child," she said.
Whatever your age, temperament and outlook play a big role in how you react to being fired. The woman who built the nonprofit corporation felt as though her underpinnings had been knocked away. "It's almost like being dead. I cannot even look into that world any more. Everything that grounded me is gone. I'm floating free. I almost feel like an old bag lady, outdated." By contrast, another friend says the moment he gets a new job he begins saving his money, preparing for the day he gets fired. It's nothing new for him any more; it's a normal occurrence. But, then, he's a writer.
Fortunately for those who are eligible, there are unemployment compensation benefits, which in the District come for 26 weeks. But approximately $200 a week is not much if you have to pay a car note, a mortgage and a credit card bill for the vacation you took last summer -- and besides, in the District, the benefits are taxable.
There's also a dramatic difference in benefits the jobless now receive. Ten years ago, more than 65 percent of the jobless received benefits for up to 65 weeks. Today, because of cutbacks by the Reagan administration and the states, once people exhaust their 26-week allotments, they receive no benefits, and that applies to nearly two-thirds of the country's unemployed.
For those people who have lived with both affluence and empty pockets, managing on less after having been fired can simply be a challenge. The other day, one friend invited me over for dinner, and said, with a laugh, "I hope you like tuna fish." I quickly assured her that tuna fish suited me just fine -- you don't have to experience firing to know what it means.
Often, of course, being fired has nothing to do with whether or not you do a good job. It can be due to politics, personality or even changing times. Being fired also means having to regroup to maintain your mental health and cope between jobs. "There is a big period of mourning," said one friend. "There can be a sense of loss as acute as if there had been a death in the family. I have had to let myself feel a little pain."
I frankly have a lot of admiration for people who can cope and keep their sense of humor and perspective during such stressful times. But I think the poets and sages may have gone too far in applauding such periods of adversity that being fired produce. "Sweet are the uses of adversity," wrote Shakespeare, while Walter Scott said, "Adversity is a tonic and bracer."
But one sweet dividend is this: adverse times let us find out who our friends are. In fact, the tests of their love can be doubled when one has been fired. Not only can friends lend emotional support -- their financial support is welcome as well.