Does anyone in America still work?
I don’t mean to be flippant. I realize that most of us languish daily under the trill of some neon eye, waiting for the day to end so that we may return home to the people and the things that truly light up our lives. But that’s not what I mean by working; there’s a more traditional, more profound definition of toil, and it has to do with finding meaning, satisfaction, and dignity in your labor, no matter what it is.
Which so many of us, too many, do not.
This week, for example, The New York Times lauded the FIRE movement, which stands for Financial Independence, Retire Early. Its prescription is simple: Find a well-paying job you despise, spend a decade or so living joylessly so that you can save a tidy little sum, and then ease into five or six more decades of tenuous retirement, doing little but watching the very small nest egg you’ve put away get smaller by the month. “Millennials,” the paper of record knowingly stated, are flocking to FIRE like moths to a flame, “seeing it as a way out of soul-sucking, time-stealing work and an economy fueled by consumerism.”
Nowhere in the entire glib, vaguely revolting piece does anyone entertain the proposition that work is its own reward, and that laboring honestly, no matter at what, brings with it a quiet and proud satisfaction that is an absolutely necessary foundation of any halfway decent human being.
And why would it? There’s little evidence in supply these days of Americans taking work seriously. Over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Put Down Artist in Chief is enamored with the perks and the power of his position but not, it seems, with the work itself, which is often subdued and frequently calls for the skillful building of alliances with colleagues who expect not to be called nasty names at the first sign of discord. Not that the president’s adversaries are any better. Those come in two flavors: The preening and hysterical left, whose idea of doing politically serious oppositional work is dressing up as characters from a television show or comparing themselves to Spartacus while senselessly breaking the law, and the haughty NeverTrumper right, who are content to lecture us about character without bothering to explain just how Agent Orange hijacked their party or what concrete policies smart conservatives might adopt to meet the actual concerns of actual Americans. This circus, sadly, is being watched over by the limp legates of the media, who, rather than taking pride in asking difficult questions and discovering inconvenient truths, are content to let the mobs on Twitter call the shots while framing every story according to their increasingly narrow worldview. Everyone shouts, everyone swoons, no one works.
Except, maybe, for Geoffrey Owens.
Last month, the former Cosby Show star was photographed bagging groceries at a Trader Joe’s store by a snarky shopper who thought nothing of snapping a shot and uploading it to social media, together with some crass comment about how sad it was that the former TV actor was now reduced to the indignity of working at a supermarket. Owens, however, felt differently. Still a working actor and an acting teacher at Yale, he said he took the Trader Joe’s job to make ends meet. Appearing on Good Morning America wearing his employee nametag, he told Robin Roberts that he valued his time behind the cash register as much as he did his days in front of the camera.
“Every job is worthwhile and valuable,” Owens said. “I’ve had a great life. I’ve had a great career … so no one has to feel sorry for me. I’m doing fine.”
Amen to all of that. With one candid snapshot and a few minutes on TV, Owens gave us all a desperately needed reminder of the transcendent value of humility and the moral uplift you get from simply finding meaning in your work. He didn’t thunder about character, democracy, class, and other abstractions and distractions. He didn’t posit a theory of victimization or rail at oppressors real or imagined. He simply walked into the studio and said that he was happy to do an honest day’s work and was grateful for the opportunity to support himself and his family.
This quiet, fundamental decency used to be the norm in America, before toxic ideology and social media and celebrity culture and other factors too many and too depressing to count made it a rarity. But as we enter the final period of reflection before the High Holidays, there are no more necessary and wise words than Owens’: Every job is worthwhile, every job is valuable. Ranting and raving and raging isn’t going to save us from our petulance, our pride, and our politics. Only doing work will, humbly and joyfully, finding purpose in every hour on the job.
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