How do you respond to your friends, neighbors and relatives who are unemployed? It can be an awkward thing for those of us who don't like to discuss painful situations.

Consider, for example, the pain induced by an all-too-common question: "What do you do for a living?"

If you're unemployed, you might not want to have to justify your existence like this upon first meeting someone.

"Tell me about yourself," or even "How about this weather?" would be a more welcome introduction.

Chances are good that you know someone who is out of work.

According to recent statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) is 5.5 million. They account for 43 percent of the unemployed.

No doubt there are many others, like me, who don't show up in these statistics because we've never taken unemployment compensation or perhaps have simply quit looking for work.

I've been unemployed, by choice, for over a year. With the blessing of my wife, I've taken time off to recharge my batteries from a stressful position as a nonprofit executive director.

The experience has helped me to develop empathy for the vast number of others who are not in paid positions.

As a guy in my mid-50s, what an abrupt transition it is to go from the whirlwind of employment to the stillness and isolation of unemployment.

The biggest impact, for me, was the blow that unemployment delivered to my sense of identity. I was accustomed to getting respect and even admiration for the work I did.

Now, without a paid job, it is awkward to justify my existence to others -- and yes, even, at times, to myself. How much more painful it must be for those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and who are struggling unsuccessfully to find paid work.

Rejection is hard, particularly the feeling that what you have to offer the world isn't perceived to be of value.

There is considerable stigma, especially for men, in being unemployed. Almost universally, my male friends seem understanding, often even envious, of my unemployment.

Women commonly seem much more uncomfortable and dismayed if I'm not eagerly looking for gainful employment.

Another major adjustment is figuring out how to structure one's day. There is a vast void in one's schedule for those eight to 12 hours that had previously been filled by paid employment.

As a person with far more hobbies and ideas than time, I have found this to be a good problem. I've started a blog, where I post pictures or commentary almost daily, have volunteered at church and within the community, expanded our vegetable garden and even started making bread.

I've come to value the important but underappreciated role "homemakers" play in the myriad jobs they take on throughout the course of a day -- from chauffeur, to cook and cleaner, to community volunteer, to financial accountant, to coupon clipper.

Unemployment creates a heightened sense of vulnerability, both financially and within relationships. I now more fully appreciate how people in abusive relationships might choose to stay in them rather than risk the great uncertainty and possible destitution that could come by being on one's own -- particularly those without a recent employment history.

Finally, there is the isolation one feels. Besides bringing a paycheck, jobs also often provide mental stimulation and social interaction one simply does not get while sitting at home.

It has been a wonderful experience for me to have discovered another unemployed neighbor, with whom I can walk and talk in the morning. We talk about politics, books and, yes, those painful feelings that come with being out of work.

So, how to respond to those who are unemployed? How about offering a visit over coffee or lunch?

All you need to do is listen with a nonjudgmental attitude. And, if you're able, offer to pick up the check.

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Dan Johnson lives in Crystal.