Every time I hear any discussion about the dignity of work, I think of the movie “The Legend of Bagger Vance.” Set in Depression-era Georgia, the story is about a Savannah man named Hardy reflecting on his love of golf, as he flashes back to a game of golf played in his youth between Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, and a fictional Rannulph Junuh. Young Hardy idolizes Savannah’s favorite son, Junuh, played by Matt Damon. When Junuh hears that Hardy is embarrassed that his dad took a job as a street sweeper after his business failed in the 1929 Stock Market crash, Junuh gives young Hardy a tongue lashing.
Hardy Greaves: He’s sweeping streets, Junuh. In the middle of Savannah, where everybody can see him. Me, my friends and everybody.
Rannulph Junuh: You feeling sorry because your daddy sweeps streets?
Hardy Greaves: He ain’t the only man who can’t get work. Wilbur’s dad can’t neither. But he says he’d rather do nothing than something beneath his dignity.
Rannulph Junuh: Grow up Hardy!
Hardy Greaves: It ain’t time for me to grow up, Mr. Junuh.
Rannulph Junuh: Your daddy is out sweeping streets because he took every last dime he had, and used it to pay up every man and woman he owed and every business who worked for him, instead of declaring bankruptcy like everyone else in town, including your best friend Wilbur Charles’ dad, Raymond, which is why he’s able to sit around all day on his dignity! Your daddy stared adversity in the eye, Hardy. And beat it back with a broom.
As you might suspect, a subplot of the movie is young Hardy regaining respect for his father.
Recently, news outlets and lifestyle magazines highlighted the work of actor Geoffrey Owens. Geoffrey, now in his mid-fifties, has worked in film, theater, and education, most notably on The Cosby Show in the late 1980s.
However, the work that caught the media’s attention was his current job as a cashier at Trader Joe’s in New Jersey. Let’s just say that given America’s overt fascination with celebrity gossip, the initial focus tended toward mockery of Owens rather than admiration. Owens was shocked by his sudden fame as an actor turned cashier. He took the job as a way to pay his family bills between acting gigs. Initially devastated by those poking fun at the downward spiral of his career, Owens explained that he was perplexed as to why people reacted as they did. He just needed a job that had flexibility and allowed him to still pursue acting opportunities.
Fortunately, the larger media outlets began to recognize that here was a man doing what he should be doing, that is, doing whatever is necessary to provide for his family. Much like Hardy’s father, Owens had “stared adversity in the eye” and beat it back as a cashier at Trader Joe’s. Others recognized it too as Owens started receiving encouraging support and praise from fellow actors. Mega-producer, Tyler Perry, just announced he has offered Owens a returning role in a TV series.
This initial job-shaming of Owens highlights the misplaced priorities of our American culture. We are guilty, far too often, of defining success in terms of money, fame or job status rather than who we are. We look up to the super-rich and down upon the hardworking, but low paying, everyman jobs like dishwasher, garbage collector, or cashier.
It appears that the real shame belongs to the job-shamers!
Owens, in a follow-up interview, made this statement about the dignity of all work.
“I hope what doesn’t pass is this idea…this rethinking about what it means to work, the honor of the working person, and the dignity of work. I hope that [we continue] this period that we’re in now, where we have a heightened sensitivity to that, and a reevaluation of what it means to work, and a reevaluation of the idea that some jobs are better than others. Because that’s actually not true.
There is no job that’s better than another job. It might pay better. It might have better benefits. It might look better on a resume and on paper. But, actually, it’s not better. Every job is worthwhile and valuable, and if we have a kind of rethinking about that because of what’s happened to me, that would be great.” (1)
Commenting on this news item, Joseph Sunde, a writer for the Acton Institute, summarized his comments as follows,
“Owens has brought tremendous value through his work as an actor, but that needn’t diminish or distract from the tremendous value he’s created by simply helping consumers find and purchase their groceries. Each role offers a unique contribution with unique civilizational value, and each ought to be celebrated, in turn. For Owens, this is the simple hope: that we “start honoring the dignity of work and the dignity of the working person.” (2)
In the early 1980s, my family lived in Athens, Georgia. Our garbage collector was a man named Silas. In his early 70’s, bow-legged with a gray beard, this elderly black man taught me a subtle lesson about dignity. I learned he was a preacher for a small African-American church. He worked on a garbage truck during the week to pay the bills so that he could preach on Sunday. But the way he went about his job, was a sermon in itself. He walked like a man who knew who he was. He paid attention to details and always made sure our garbage can was placed precisely where it was supposed to be. Always friendly, he never failed to say hello. Silas was providing a service, and he seemed genuinely proud to do so. Some folks may consider work as just a nasty four letter word, a curse upon humanity. Silas viewed his work with a holy purpose.
As a Christian, I also believe God is the author of work. He gave Adam the job of tending the Garden of Eden. Created in the image of God, every person has intrinsic value, and our work has intrinsic value as well. All of us, in some way or another, serve those around us. Work is our opportunity to serve.
So, whether you are Geoffrey Owens the Actor/Cashier, Silas the Garbageman, or Big Boss the CEO, you reflect God’s image as one who serves his/her neighbors. Dignity, it turns out, is a quality possessed by those who work to serve others. The job-shamers, on the other hand, wouldn’t know dignity if they were sitting on it.
And speaking of work that serves others, I love how writer Calah Alexander summed up her view that there are no good or bad jobs — only work worth doing, “I’m far more grateful for the Target employees that give my kids the gift of clean restrooms than I am for the CEOs who decide what toy is going to be the new Christmas trend.” (3)
Amen to that!
(1) “Against Job-shaming: ‘Cosby’ actor reminds us of the dignity of work.” Joseph Sunde, Sep 5, 2018, Acton Institute Powerblog.
(3) “Job-shaming: There are no good or bad jobs — only work worth doing.” Calah Alexander, Sep 10, 2018, aleteia.org