It’s hard to keep track of all the popular culture nomenclature these days what with #movements and social media shorthand. But a new one hit the airwaves recently that deserves a vetting. An actor, who had been on a very popular sitcom in the 1990s, was “discovered” working as a grocery store clerk and the internet exploded.
The actor was apparently “job-shamed” as people commented on how “low” this poor fellow had fallen from grace and was now paying his bills by being a lowly worker in a grocery store. Now personally, I have always had an affinity for grocery store clerks, as my dad was one. Although my dad didn’t star in his own sitcom, I must admit if our family parties were pay-per-view events I could have made a fortune.
What was refreshing was the different turn this story made. The actor/grocery clerk was not ashamed, because he did not believe he was doing anything but good honest work to make a living. In our pop culture, everyone wants to be famous — even if it’s just for fifteen minutes. And nobody wants to be mundane.
Pope Francis, ruminating last year about labor and the dignity of work wrote: “According to Christian tradition, (work) is more than a mere doing; it is, above all, a mission.” The world seems to have forgotten that, but this former sitcom star had not. He was at total ease in his own skin over being gainfully employed. He is still a working, albeit struggling, actor, explaining during his “second act” of fame, that his job at the grocery store allowed him the flexible schedule to still go out on auditions.
It seems our pop culture wants it both ways. Singer-songwriters from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen have made a living, a good living, singing about the “working man” and all his troubles and tribulations.
But isn’t it interesting that for most of these artists, they live like the multi-millionaires they are? And even when they struggled and were crafting their art, they didn’t live like working people. Working people can’t stay up until 4 in the morning playing in dives and smoke-filled concert halls and hold down a “real” job.
Still, they fashion these Steinbeckian worlds of hardscrabble lives that never really sound all that appealing. And when an actor comes along who is okay with working in a grocery store, the world grinds to halt. It’s also indicative of how we have turned the entertainment industry into a cult, when the actor/grocery clerk was offered a guest starring role in a cable television series. All the entertainment types who came to this actor’s defense, as if he needed a defense, were also fully relieved that he had been offered a gig as an actor. I wonder what the reaction would have been if another grocery store chain had offered him a job.
St. Joseph worked with his hands. Apparently Jesus did as well before he went into another line of work. Jesus’ apostles were men not of high intellect but with callouses on their hands. Well, maybe the apostle Matthew had blisters on his fingers from cooking the books as a tax collector, but overall, these were just your average hard-working joes, and Jesus seemed to think they had potential.
And we all have potential if we look at our labor in the right light. That is not always easy. No matter how “evolved” we males might like to think we have become, as long as there are Y chromosomes, there is going to be a competitive edginess to men. We see it in the apostles as they jostled for positions of prominence until Jesus had to set them straight.
Men tend to view their worth based on the job they have and that is a path to frustration and disappointment. We all can’t be the star of the football team or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
My dad struggled with that. He struck out on his own and opened his own grocery store. It went bust and he nearly did the same. It took a while, but eventually he saw what we should all strive to see, and it’s something this out of work actor already knows.
A good day’s labor is a good day’s labor and we are not the sum of our pay stubs, but were meant for better things.
Robert Brennan is a weekly columnist for Angelus online and in print. He has written for many Catholic publications, including National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He spent 25 years as a television writer, and is currently the Director of Communications for the Salvation Army California South Division.
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