The first song I learned by heart was Harry Chapin’s “Mr. Tanner,” (embedded below) a crushingly sad tune about a laundromat owner from Dayton, Ohio, who loves to sing. Here’s the first verse:

“Mr. Tanner was a cleaner from a town in the Midwest

And of all the cleaning shops around, he’d made his the best

But he also was a baritone who sang while hanging clothes

He practiced scales while pressing tails and sang at local shows.”

Mr. Tanner’s friends convince him to try his hand at professional music, and after bringing himself to the brink of financial ruin to hire an agent, buy a plane ticket, and book a concert hall in New York City, he takes the stage in the “half-filled hall” (Half full! Such optimism!) and sings his songs. The next day, a newspaper critic eviscerates him with a terse, four-line review that ends like this:

“Full-time consideration of another endeavor might be in order.”

Mr. Tanner returns to his Dayton dry-cleaning business, shrugs off his friends’ questions about the big concert, and never sings in public again. The end.

My father, a diehard Harry Chapin fan, played this song for my brother and me countless times when we were growing up. I don’t remember him ever explicitly moralizing about the song, but I was a pretty jaded 10-year-old, so I quickly picked up the lessons from Mr. Tanner’s story: Know your limitations. Live within your means. Accept the hand you’re dealt, even if that hand doesn’t allow you to chase down your dreams for a living.

If I go a year without listening to “Mr. Tanner,” my first time hearing it again will always bring a lump to my throat. But is it really so crushingly sad? The answer to that question depends on your philosophy of work.

I was reminded of Mr. Tanner a few months ago when I read “In the Name of Love,” Miya Tokumitsu’s trenchant mini-manifesto on labor that was published in Jacobin and Slate. If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor.

Here’s the thesis:

“There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate  — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.”

It’s an essay that bridges the personal and political, showing how DWYL is both a failure of pop psychology and a symptom (and perpetuator) of class strife. For every “lovable” job — in Tokumitsu’s milieu, jobs like the media producer, the fashion designer, the artisanal fruit jam maker — there is a legion of people working “unlovable” jobs who make it possible. Tokumitsu gives the example of beatified Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who embodied the DWYL ethic, and whose dream job was only possible through the sweat and toil of low-level office employees, factory workers in Shenzhen, and janitors, among myriad other people working (in Tokumitsu’s and, probably, Jobs’ mind) less-than-desirable jobs.

Coming back to the Harry Chapin song, our hero Mr. Tanner tries Doing What He Loves, and it doesn’t pan out. He falls short of glory and goes back to the grind.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that Mr. Tanner’s story is the story of most American lives. We come of age with outsize dreams, and we whittle them down as we grow older. The aspiring pro football player finds a job in construction; the young astronaut becomes an engineer; the kid who wants to be president settles for a place on the local school board.

But those career arcs aren’t tragedies. The world needs an army of good construction workers, engineers, and school board members. It only needs one U.S. president at a time.

Tokumitsu is right: The DWYL ethic is making a lot of honest workers miserable. It is enabling those of us with desirable livelihoods to look down our noses at neighbors with workaday jobs. And it is propping up the worldview of employers who underpay workers and extract labor from a growing army of unpaid interns, as if work experience and job satisfaction could put food on the table. As Tokumitsu points out, the aphorism “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life!” is not only hackneyed but harmful.

“In ignoring most work and reclassifying the rest as love,” Tokumitsu writes, “DWYL may be the most elegant anti-worker ideology around.”

As for me, I’m neither a cleaner nor a baritone. Through what I can only believe is divine providence, I am actually working full-time in the field for which I went to college, and I enjoy the job most weeks. In my short work history (I’m 25), I’ve been trying to cultivate something like a Christian work ethic, and in so doing I keep running up against a couple of unhealthy attitudes that can seem at first like healthy ones.

One of those attitudes is a mutation of the so-called Protestant Work Ethic, the fabled bedrock of Western capitalism. It tells me to hold my nose to the grindstone and put in 80-hour work weeks because complaining about work is a form of sloth. Like Boxer in Animal Farm, my response to overwhelming work is, “I will work harder.” (Fittingly enough, it is currently 1:36 a.m. and I am working on a freelance piece.)

Not only is this attitude psychologically unhealthy, but, if adopted by the world at large, it would create a culture of sociopathic workaholism. And I don’t think it’s a good way to serve a God whose first recorded acts included an entire day of rest.

The other attitude I keep fighting is a mutation of the idea of vocation. The original concept, as promoted by Calvin and Luther, was based on passages like this one from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” In other words, baritone or dry cleaner, we should go about our jobs as if we were doing them for a higher cause — because we are. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'”

But we’ve (I’ve) muddled the idea of vocation with the self-help idea that we are all somehow special and unique. Now, if I live a day where I don’t feel like I’ve changed the world and achieved perfect emotional fulfillment, I’m not just discouraged by a lousy day — I feel guilty about it, too. I heard about this struggle often in college, when my friends and I agonized over what to do for a living. It couldn’t be something as prosaic as working retail or doing maintenance for a school, could it? How is that, as the old chestnut goes, the place where “where my greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need”?

It isn’t. But I’ve never been a fan of old chestnuts anyway.

A job is not a vocation because it fixes the world or makes us emotionally whole; it’s a vocation because, in some small way, we fit into a functioning society and a Christian family.

One of the clearest, earliest visions of Christian vocation I saw was in high school, when most of my friends were bagging groceries or selling clothes and complaining about it daily. My one friend who didn’t complain about his job was Justin, who worked for his dad painting hotel rooms and cleaning parking lots halfway across the state. During the summers, he also cut the grass in a mobile home park his dad owned (sometimes I tagged along to earn a few bucks). His job was solitary, sweaty, and unglamorous. But he was my only friend who didn’t gripe about his boss.

Justin put his back into everything. He didn’t pretend it was easy. Still, he was about his father’s work, and that made all the difference in his attitude. That, I think, is the real Protestant Work Ethic, and I’ve seen it in a select few friends through the intervening years. They come from all walks of life — a journalist, a fry cook, an arborist, a nurse. In some cases it took them a few jobs to find their vocation. Christian vocation doesn’t mean working the perfect gig, nor does it mean accepting any wretched job with equanimity. In most cases, my friends who’ve figured out their vocation are not working their lifelong dream job, just a job that they can go about joyfully.

Vocation is not some bootstraps bromide. It’s not an excuse for bad bosses to trample employees underfoot. It’s not about doing what you love. It’s about doing what you can to the best of your ability, for the best possible reason, for this is your lot.

 
About The Author

Paul Bowers

  • Patrick Sawyer

    Paul,
    What a thoughtful post. Moving, compelling, in many ways convincing. I have not read Tokumitsu’s piece but will. Her thesis as stated here seems partially flawed to me but seems worthy of a full perusal nonetheless. Thanks Paul for staying up late and cranking this out. A very interesting post.

  • AC700

    What the heck is a post like this doing on a site like this ….. Paul, I pray you rub off on these liberal zombies

  • Vernon Rainwater

    Thank you for this compelling post. I was like your dad (made my kids listen to that song because I love it) – but at such a young age (the view from my age) you have nailed it…spot on my friend.