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It’s an early evening on a Cape winters weekday. It’s dark. A man is walking, alone, his collar up to shield against the icy breeze coming from the cold Atlantic. Knowing it’s not quite safe to be alone at this hour, he keeps his head down but glances around every so often — a natural habit for any South African. It’s not too late yet, but late enough for the streets to have been transformed from “manageable” into “dangerous”. He is hurrying along and looking forward to feeling the comfort of his home, the warmth and familiarity of his family’s evening routine. A hot meal awaits, a lively buzz of his wife getting ready for supper, teenage kids going for a shower and wrapping up some homework. The familiar mumblings of a brother moaning at his sister for leaving the bathroom floor all wet. A bit of sanctuary after the day’s hard work, despite the white noise of a bustling home. But his mind drifts and a few niggles at work bleed through to his consciousness. Difficult project. Tight deadlines. The economy is down and the market is slow. There is a general sense of anxiety hovering around in the corridors in the office and the Zoom rooms on his laptop. “What time is my first meeting tomorrow?” — he thinks…
And then it hits him. Out of the blue. A lightning movement from the corner of his eye. A rush of sound milliseconds before he feels it. And then it comes. The Sting. Frightening. Violent. Unexpected. Devastating. The colour drains from his face like a coat of white paint cancelling a child’s colourful artistry on the lounge walls. He feels the numbness in his bones like when a cyclist hits the wall after 80 km into the Argus without sufficient energy to go up Suikerbossie.
No, he was not bitten by a vampire.
He was retrenched.
Lots of similarities in being retrenched and bitten by a vampire. I suspect so anyway, having never been bitten by one myself. But I digress. If you have not been retrenched, you almost certainly know someone who has gone through this ordeal in the recent past. Sometimes it comes very unexpected. Other times that hovering sword of anticipation, all too familiar for far too long, comes sweeping down suddenly like Death’s sickle in a Terry Pratchett novel. Half expected half surprising.
Retrenchment in South Africa
Retrenchment is a common phenomenon in South Africa. The prospect of being told that your company is downsizing, or needs to be right sized, or is being restructured is all too familiar. Therefore, being retrenched does not directly speak to the performance (or the lack thereof) of the individual, but rather the company’s change in strategic direction. Or, perhaps, it needs to course correct to align with its original strategy. It is the company’s performance that is being used as a reason for a “Section 187”, not necessarily that of the individual.
Perhaps if employers had more freedom to actually dismiss non-performing employees in South Africa, retrenchment would have been less common. Be that as it may, for those of us who have thus far escaped the agony of retrenchment, it is often difficult to put ourselves in a retrenched person’ shoes (yes I knew from the start that retrenchee is not really a word!). In fact, we probably avoid going there in our minds altogether — I know I do. But it was with great interest when I recently got to listen to two of my friends sharing their retrenchment stories with me. What must it be like to get home with…
“Hi honey, I’m ho… I mean… I was retrenched”.
Few things must be as hard for a man as to have that first conversation with his family after being retrenched. I can’t speak from a woman’s point of view, but for most men the role of Provider is so tightly fettered to our identity that something like a retrenchment completely overturns the apple cart. A whole Pandora’s Box of worries is opened when we start to doubt and wonder how we will survive financially, or where to find another job (especially for a white male in South Africa). Dealing with the mental energy it takes to prepare for all the conversations that would surely happen with other friends and colleagues, adds to the emotional toll.
“What happened at the company that lead to the retrenchment?” “What was the process like?” “Was it fair?” “Who else got retrenched?” “What are the options now?” “Will you be OK financially?” “What’s next?” “Is there something I can do?”
For Christians, this is often a time of extra special reliance on God. Much more prayer than usual are in the order of the day. God is a great comforter in situations like these, as many have attested to when thinking back of hard times. Scripture confirms this:
a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice – Isaiah 42:3
However, often the troughs of despondency and the grips of the Giant of Doubting Castle takes hold of us.
We can’t always be truthfully optimistic about the trial we’re going through, despite knowing that the Lord has said
I will never leave you, nor forsake you – Hebrews 13:5.
James 1 assures us that trials will come and that nobody will escape it, Christian or not. But he also highlights that trials are a tool for shaping and building character. It is the vehicle of the blessing of more dependence on God than on ourselves. It is the refinery of opportunities for God to show how he leads us through a valley of the shadow of death, and brings us out on the other side in a better shape than before.
But let’s be honest. While you’re in the middle of that trial, things aren’t so simplistic nor are they that clear. It is tough and painful, and fraught with anxiety. Christ followers might feel the added pressure to project optimism, confidence and resilience to a watching world filled with other Christians and non-Christians alike, even if they don’t feel all that positive at that particular time.
It was in a state like this that my friend got home and faced his family with the terrible news. “I was retrenched”. But their reaction surprised him.
“What does that mean for us?”, one family member asked.
“That’s awesome!”, another exclaimed.
“How do we leverage this?”, a third posed.
Blessing in disguise
You see, for one friend the retrenchment turned out to be a real blessing in disguise. Of course, this is not to say that there were not lots of worries, fears and doubts surrounding this whole process. But often this is the catalyst for a burst of creativity. Suddenly something like this happens and everything changes. The tracks our mental train has been riding on suddenly reaches a switch point. New possibilities open up. Old shackles falls to the ground. The eagle has just dropped a few needles in the nest so that the chicks must get out and fly.
Released. Unburdened. Wiser. More purpose.
Retrenchments are normally pretty ugly affairs. Finger pointing, blaming, resentment. Reverting to unfriendly and strained legal language. Arguing and negotiating over a potential severance package.
But this is not always the case. Sometimes it is just a mutual acknowledgement that things aren’t actually working as smoothly as it should. Perhaps the organisation’s strategic direction is somewhat different from what you had in mind. When you’re in leadership especially, personal and organisational misalignment might be because of financial constraints, timing, or even political factionalism. Or perhaps something altogether different.
But the point is that it reaches a point. And then taking the switch point and moving the train forward in a different direction becomes the best option for both parties involved.
For my friend, reaching this point provided a greater awareness of what his actual stress levels were. If optimism, determination, self-motivation and personal drive are strong factors in your personal makeup, it is easy to create the kinds of reality distortion fields that Steve Jobs was so famous for. It is also easy not to realise how taxing the stress at work can be on your mind and body. And so, the necessary introspection, reevaluation and reorientation in this process can be very therapeutic. Taking stock and considering other possibilities, and more pertinently taking a step in a new direction, would have been extremely unlikely if it was not for The Retrenchment.
His new journey has started. I’m looking forward to seeing where it leads.
Family History X
An unexpected positive outcome for my other friend was a deeper appreciation of what happened to his father, who lost his job when he was in his early 50s. There is nothing like actually being in someone’s shoes to understand what goes on in a person’s mind. Solomon writes:
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honour you if you embrace her. She will place on your head a graceful garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.” – Proverbs 4:7 – 9
One of my mentors always used to say “the lesson will come when the student is ready”. Going through a retrenchment certainly accelerates the student to become more ready for lessons from the hand of the Father.
My Friend Number Two is a remarkable character. Talking to him during the time of his retrenchment journey, I was always struck by the fact that he never wavered in his belief that God was steering this toward the greater good. He continued to see God’s working in his life and character (as well as exercising his patience-muscles!). But the usual snares we men often need to deal with — our egos, our independence, our tendency towards judgmentalism — they come into the fire of purification when we walk the plank of retrenchment.
The narrative of life
“Our life narrative is wrong” Friend 2 also told me during a conversation. The world presupposes that we should follow a certain trajectory. Learn and take what we can from every situation, where work is often more focused on what I can get out of it rather than what I contribute. Make as much money as possible. Experience as many things as possible, not limiting ourselves. Perhaps look forward to a retirement that is free from worry and the ability to enjoy our last years in peace.
You might shape this narrative to something more relevant to you. The point Friend 2 was trying to make was that if we are to love God with all our hearts and love our neighbours too, then Service to Others should be a much more pertinent theme in our approach to life. For that to happen, we need more empathy and the ability to see things from others’ perspective, not only our own. Having a mind that is trained on what I can do as opposed to fussing about what others should do is something we need to strive for.
Our unique opportunities
Much like for Friend 1, a sharper focus on our unique makeup, opportunities and creative solutioning is intensified by retrenchment. But self assessment requires honesty and integrity, and also a healthy dose of contemplative introspection. We need to learn from our past mistakes and channel the learnings into what comes next for us. We each have unique circumstances, networks, skills and abilities. Like David says:
…we are fearfully and wonderfully made. — Psalm 139:14
How do these things come together in what God makes available to me? Is he perhaps using this particular circumstances to show me something that I would not have been able to see otherwise? It was really helpful to be reminded in the Psalms that:
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path — Psalm 119:105
The lamp shows only a small radius, it does not floodlight far into the future. We have to see what God is showing us right now (within the radius of the lamp) and trust him for the floodlight future. Let’s apply our minds and hearts in prayer and anticipation for His leading us forward.
It’s not the end yet
Despair is almost a given for those who walk this journey of retrenchment. Regardless of our spiritual maturity, there will be moments where we lose heart and think this hole is too deep to climb out of. But we have only to look at the myriad of examples in Scripture where God simply steps in and lift us back onto our feet. One such example is how he dealt with Elijah after his showdown with the Baal priests. Even though he won a victory that day, Elijah was in despair because of the dismal state of the spiritual health of Israel. God refreshed Elijah with ravens to feed him, lifted him up again, reminded him that his ways are not our ways, and sent him on his next mission where he witnessed more of God’s goodness. 1 Kings 17:2-16.
We have to hold on to our eternal perspective and world view. As Christ followers, we have to be faithful in both what we do and how we do it. The pain we feel in our earthly wanderings remind us that we are living in a fallen world, but that we are also on our journey to the Celestial City. On our way there we need to slot into God’s plans. We have the Lamp, not the Floodlight, but that is enough for now.
What I’ve learned from these interviews
It was a great privilege to hear my friends’ stories. It was so encouraging hearing how they’ve grown and learned from their ordeals. Their stories were not isolated to tales of drama, depression and horror. They also taught me much and gave me a new perspective on this very thorny topic.
They taught me lessons that I may need to apply to my own life sooner or later. And lessons that you may need to apply sooner or later as well.
I am not sure how their stories would have played out if they didn’t have God in their lives, but I know this: God often uses times like these to bring people into his fold that weren’t in it before.
Don’t waste a good crisis
Few things in life bolster character growth, personal development and learning as much as trials. For example, don’t we all want to work more with others who have “scars on their backs” because they have the invaluable experience to help us avoid pitfalls we don’t even know exist yet?
Can you think of anyone you admire — a close friend, a famous leader, a great teacher — who has not been shaped by hardship and trials? This is the hotbed for learning, self-discovery, and a change in perspective. It is also undoubtedly the one area where we will deepen our spiritual roots and seek God harder as we anchor against the storms of life.
Most importantly, we have a Saviour who is no stranger to the hardships of betrayal, ridicule, physical pain and death. Yet he is the ultimate example of self sacrifice and forgiveness.
Don’t burn bridges
When we are treated unfairly, we want to retaliate and fight back. But we have some direction from the Scriptures:
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” — Romans 12:17-19
You never know what the future holds, and how today’s actions might have ramifications later in life. Try to think of things like “how will people remember me?”. “Was I salt and light in that particular situation?”. Or “what was my witnessing like?”.
Easier said than done, I know. But worth pursuing nonetheless. This was especially relevant for Friend 1, who’ve managed to have a number of opportunities appearing in front of him because of the way he handled his retrenchment, the importance he always places on his relationships, and because of so many people who can attest to his work ethic.
You might need that bridge to cross a river again — who knows?
My friends are still on their new journeys, with many good things happening in their lives right now. But they’re also still experiencing many scary things, and the trials are still there albeit in a different flavour. Perhaps you have just been retrenched, or you know that retrenchment looms soon. Your journey might have similarities with the ones you read about here, or they might look totally different.
Either way, hold on the hope, hold on to these testimonies, and hold on to the One who ultimately leads you through this trial.
May God bless you and guide you if this is your journey.