They were some of my hardest days, but they forced me to do something I had never done before.
“What if this is all there is for me?” I asked in a Walmart parking lot. Sitting in my parents’ car, I leaned against the steering wheel and looked out at the glowing Walmart sign. The parking lot was jam packed. Cars circled like vultures, waiting for a spot. People shuffled out of the sliding doors in sweatpants and slippers, gripping receipts and pushing carts full of flat screen TVs, plastic shelves, and sequin flip pillows.
I had been unemployed for seven months. I left New York City after four years of working as an editor at a magazine in the heart of Manhattan. I was back in my parents’ house in the small town I grew up in. I sat in the same wheezing old car I learned to drive in, in the same clothes I wore in high school.
After months of ignored job applications submitted to Linkedin, I realized this may be it. “This” being an average life. Life in a small town, driving around a Walmart parking lot at 10 p.m., a frozen pizza and pint of ice cream in the back seat, hair permanently in a messy bun (and probably not washed).
I looked out at the modern Americana landscape before me, the epitome of suburban banality in my estimation. For years, I pictured my future like a montage scene from The Devil Wears Prada… Fabulous outfits changing in tempo with upbeat music as I crossed the busy New York streets on my way to cocktails, important business meetings, and rooftop parties. For a little while my life was like that, but then it came to a screeching halt and I was just a girl in pilling sweatpants on her way to RedBox.
As I sat in the parking lot, a thought slammed into my consciousness like a book dropping in an empty room: “When dreams don’t come true and we have nothing else — what’s left?”
Months of unanswered prayers and the complete unraveling of my pride and identity eventually brought me to a crossroads. In that sobering moment, I resolved that I had to find a way to be happy. I had to. If other people could find happiness in a normal life, that meant something. They didn’t need a dream or success to make them happy. Their happiness wasn’t contingent upon superficial success or achieving a dream.
“So if people can find happiness in a simple life, they must find joy in simple things, right?” I thought to myself as I drove home. That week I started focusing on the little things — things I disregarded in the past as being less important than pursuing a high-caliber career.
One day I found myself at my neighbor’s house for hours, just laughing and hanging out. I came over for coffee in the morning and ended up spending the whole day, living in the moment. My days started following that formula. I began learning guitar, writing for publications I loved, investing in my relationships, and talking to God. All of these simple, “enjoying the moment” moments added up until one day, I realized I was happy. Happy without the fancy New York apartment, without an expensive wardrobe, without a high-powered career.
I wasn’t asking, “How am I going to get what I want?” but, “What really matters?” When I stopped obsessively pursuing my dream, it really came down to one thing — getting to heaven. When we strip away our pursuits for earthly success, what do we have left? Well, the only thing that matters — the only thing that has ever mattered, really.
Whenever we reach a season of suffering in life, we inevitably question the purpose of it all. Why is this happening? What is the meaning of anything? For me, the suffering of prolonged unemployment forced me to think about the big picture and what life is really about. And just like that, the priorities of my life re-organized like Tetris blocks. Suddenly, I didn’t want an important career in a fast-paced city, I didn’t crave success and recognition. I just wanted to find meaning in the day-to-day. When I reflect on it, I think I’ve always been the happiest when appreciating the little things.
We all reach crossroads, when we must decide to see the worst or best in a difficult situation. God’s greatest promise is that good can come from bad, but we do have free will. We must choose to pursue the good.
While that period of unemployment was probably one of the hardest times of my life, it forced me to find real joy and I wouldn’t trade that for all the success in the world.