01/27/2012 04:11 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2012

Losing My Job Improved My Life

I'd been downsized. Thrown under the bus. Killed, some people call it. What a rip-off! I'd made a deal--"I'll give my time on Earth to the Corporation in exchange for money and health insurance to keep my family safe"--and now they weren't holding up their end of the bargain: "We don't want you anymore. Get lost!"

But, surprise, now I was found. I had thought I didn't like spending my precious days on Earth sealed into a box at Time Warner headquarters, where I toiled in corporate communications, but I had no idea. I wasn't fully conscious of how alienated I was, how estranged from myself. I couldn't afford to be, because then how could I have kept doing my job?

Now, anything was possible.

This is the opportunity that presents itself to many of the two million unemployed Americans over 55: We can find our true calling.

But how do we find what that is? A lot of us feel as though someone or something is out there calling, but very quietly, or at too great a distance to hear. Or maybe the call comes when we are busy, and our minds don't have call waiting, and we don't pick up. We are trying to figure out what we're supposed to be doing. It's different from, and more than, deciding what we want to do. We're trying to fulfill our purpose, do what we are meant to do.

For some people, the search leads to divinity school, as David Worley, Dean of Admissions at Denver's Iliff School of Theology, can attest:

"I can introduce you to all kinds of people who would absolutely affirm that they believe that God has called them to do something in the world. Now I personally am not convinced of that, and that's why I really think that it's critical to know what your skills are, how you fit, and then to try to align your life as closely as you can. When I'm in that position, lo and behold, I feel like I fit better, that my life is more meaningful, that I am doing what I should be doing.

I don't think that meaning is somewhere out there in metaphysical space that one day clicks for us," he continued. "I really think it's a process of constantly working yourself into a better situation, and by that, I mean a situation that fits you better. It has something to do with not having to truncate yourself, being able to be fully you."

I've spoken to a lot of people about their quests for such a situation, and one thing holds true: You know it when you find it. Esther Keeney, a nurse in upstate New York, discovered that she needed above all to feel connected to people; she quit her supervisory job to do hands-on work with patients. For Ed Booth, a laid-off autoworker in Delaware, the best-fitting situation was working in his own repair shop, so he'd be making money for his family, not for the boss.

Myself, I reverse-engineered my life: Noticing that I'd repeatedly volunteered to teach English to immigrants over the years, I figured that I must like it. So I got some training, volunteered again, and finally landed a part-time job teaching ESL at a community college. In speech lab one night, we played "All You Need is Love." As I stood at the side of the room listening to my class sing, "There's nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be," I was overwhelmed by the realization that I was in exactly the right place doing precisely the right thing.

Not long after that, my wife and I visited one of my students at the diner where she worked. Next door to the restaurant, we happened upon a little store called the Inner Peace Gift Shop, where a wall hanging behind the cash register set forth the lesson I had finally learned:

We must be willing to let go of the life we have
planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
--E. M. Forster

James Kunen is the author of "Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life" [Lyons Press, $24.95].