The Empathy Reflex: What Being Unemployed Taught Me About Shame by Gabrielle Kassel
I graduated a prestigious women’s college in Northampton in May before moving to New York, New York for six weeks to complete a publishing program at NYU. When I the program ended mid-July I moved back to my mom’s house in Connecticut where I proceeded to aimlessly apply for jobs. I was a recent college graduate who, with a diploma to prove my past four-years of hard work, but I was struggling to make the “right” decision about what’s next. Yet, I didn’t talk about it, this struggle, for fear of judgment, for fear of lack of empathy.
I was close with the graduating classes of 2014 and 2015, from those classes I made friends who taught me how to toss a rugby ball, friends who taught me the beauty of body-hair, friends who held me through my first heart-break, made congratulatory Facebook posts when I crossed the finish line of my first marathon, friends who have watched me open, as if a flower. When they graduated I watched in pride as they walked in poor-fitting gowns and caps decorated with their rugby numbers, and for some, I cried.
But when three months post-graduation they didn’t have jobs, I didn’t get it and I couldn’t have been less sympathetic. I thought, that won’t be me, I have a 3.85 GPA! That can’t be me I take 20 credits each semester AND play rugby AND work 20 hours a week AND I’m training for a marathon. Their failure to lock down a job became a means of congratulating myself on what I would not become when I graduated: unemployed.
Two years later, I had the first two months of post-graduation perfectly planned: move to New York, attend the NYU Summer Publishing Institute, and use the contacts I make there to land my dream job at twenty-two. I thought to myself, I am well-rounded, my resume is already leaking onto the second page, and I’m good at school, how hard can it really be to start a career?
When the one-month mark since the NYU program completed hit, I found myself in the same situation my older friends were a year or two ago.
The shame I felt was palpable, both from myself and from those around me. The time of unemployment after completing college is deeply vulnerable. There were so many directions I could take, so many questions I couldn’t help but ask. Should I pack up all my things and move to the city of my dreams, Portland? Should I do what all starving artists do, live in a 400 square-foot apartment in New York? Should I continue living with my mom in Connecticut to save money? Should I waitress until I get my dream job, or is that taking time away from applying to jobs on my desired career path?
I rarely asked those questions aloud, fear of being shamed or mocked, and not knowing innately the right answer plagued me with silence. Instead, I made to-do lists, laughed about the “post grad blues” and continued aimlessly applying to jobs, having interviews, and writing personalized cover letter after personalized cover letter.
Reflecting back on those two months of unemployment, one conversation with my closest friend, the friend I lived with in New York, glows particularly neon. We were both sitting in her kitchen as I talked about my upcoming interview for a job, one which would require I move to Pennsylvania, but would give me the opportunity to work for the company of my dreams. I was hurt by her lack of excitement, compassion, and encouragement. She wasn’t interested in what the small Pennsylvania town could offer me, the kind of routine it would allow me to fall into, or the dream-like nature of the job, if I got it.
I was struck by the quickness with which she discounted my excitement of having made it to the second round of interviews, with which she mocked my own excitement, “Gabby would be the friend to settle down in bum-fuck nowhere” or “the good news is I image no one else is interviewing for the job” and “I bet a lot less people applied than they would if it was in New York”. Perhaps I caught her on a bad day. Perhaps the prospect of me moving to a different city than her made her sad. Perhaps she once had a terrible experience in Pennsylvania. Or perhaps it’s a mixture of all those things, but the shame heavy in her words startled me.
But her shame is understandable. Isn’t it the same shame I offered my older friends when they were jobless or when they accepted job position I declared beneath them?
Having been the victim of “unemployed post-graduation shame” for two months before landing a different position with the dream-company I mentioned above, I am making the pledge to be as compassionate as possible towards other graduates who are in the same shoes as me, to be only encouraging when they get that second interview, when they do or do not get the job they’d been banking on, when they are applying to jobs in fields I don’t understand. I am making the pledge to be especially kind to individuals going through transitions, to individuals tackling new stages of life.
And aren’t we all always evolving, tackling new stages, going through some kind of transition