Late fall every year is budget time at the government agency I have worked at for the last 24 years. One year, as budget cuts were happening, people were getting fired at a pace that was unheard of...
One afternoon, a Thursday, my phone rang. The caller ID displayed, “Executive Office”. My heart stopped.
I tried to muster all of the lightness I could when I answered the phone. The voice was direct. “You need to report to Human Resources.”
I replied, “What’s this about, Lisa?”
She replied, “I don’t know.”
She was lying.
We both knew that she was lying. I walked with shaky legs to the Human Resources building. As I signed my name in the Visitor’s Log, I was not surprised to see my shaky, unrecognizable signature. I was terrified.
Someone directed me to a conference room. Sitting at a table were the Director of Human Resources and the Executive Director. They were people I knew, people I respected. They were brief.
“Unfortunately, due to the budget cuts that you are aware of, you are either going to be demoted to an administrative assistant position in the Records Division or you are fired.”
I was stunned. I did not say a word. They asked if I had any questions. I said, “No.”
I got up and walked out of the room. 24 years. 6 years from a full pension. What should I do? What could I do?
I was humiliated.
I called my wife as I drove home and relayed the news to her. She replied, “We will get through this. Together.”
Someone else’s words the next day would prove much more sobering with a lot less love. It was the full-stop to my pity party before it could really get going. I received a call from an outside line. It was a superintendent of one of the facilities I worked with. He asked me for the phone number of a co-worker.
Putting my “poor me” voice on, I said, “Dan, I just got demoted yesterday.” Indignantly and without hesitation he replied, “Matt, I got fired.” Immediately, my problem became so small in comparison. I carry Dan’s words with me to this day, 5 years later.
After I came home on that first night after being given “the choice”, I slowly realized what mattered. I still had a wife and
1-year old son. I still had family. I still had friends. This demotion wasn’t going to kill me. The sun was going to rise the next morning.
The only thing I had to do was swallow my pride and take the offer. I took a job that was a humiliating cut in pay and status. I realized that status doesn’t matter because I had to try so damn hard to keep it. The stress, the weekly meetings, the dozens of emails per day, the being on call 24-hours a day 7 days a week were all gone in an instant. I have never looked back on those stressful days with fondness. I don’t miss them. I realized what was important. I realized what matters.
As it turns out, two and a half years after I started in the Records Department, humiliated beyond belief, I now work for the Human Resources department, on the exact floor where I was given the choice. I have co-workers who are kind to me and we laugh a lot. I laugh a lot more now that I’m removed from the constant stress, the kind of stress you’re not even aware you have. I’m a year from retirement with my full pension.
I think about the two people that had to give me that choice. I think about how they gave that same choice to a lot of people and how they had to fire many more. My ordeal wasn’t only about me. Many others were affected during that fall.
Life isn’t only about me.
Life is about all of us, the assistants who make the calls, the directors who have to deliver brutal news, the spouses, the friends and families who bear the brunt of the sadness and give what really counts, a sympathetic ear, a hug, and love.
What about Dan? He’s doing well. The person who told me about him said,
“He’s happy though. He’s happier than he’s ever been. He’s happy to have left such a toxic place.”