Monday, October 14, 2013

I have a dirty job.

Exodus 23:12, Matthew 20:1-16, Colossians 3:23

I love the show Dirty Jobs.  I have often said that the host, Mike Rowe, is the hottest man who will never, ever touch me; because I know exactly where he's been.  Rowe is also an admirable and decent man, with good comic instincts and boundless humility in the face of his own ignorance and inability.  Even though he began his career in the arts and has a fine (and lucrative) speaking and singing voice, he focuses his television career and activism promoting the traditional trades in the American job market.  His slogan, Work Smart AND Hard, means a lot to him, and inspires me.

While Rowe specifically promotes the skilled trades, his general ethic of respect, even reverence, for hard, unpleasant, and necessary work resonates deeply with me, as I have a job characterized by hard, unpleasant, and necessary work.  I work retail.  My job would be categorized as unskilled, which is a joke, because it requires lots of different skills, some of them very difficult to learn and teach.  Mostly, since economic pressures have changed the retail business drastically in the last few years, what the job now requires is the ability to motivate and direct oneself: to evaluate the job environment, identify and prioritize the various jobs that need doing, and do them, correctly and in an appropriate time frame, welcoming constant interruptions from customers, coworkers, and supervisors.  (Obviously, that is not how our corporate offices would characterize my job, but we often disagree.  On myriad topics.)

And like garbage men, sewer workers, and toilet scrubbers, we get no respect.  I believe that the more necessary the dirty job, the less that white-collar professionals want to acknowledge us and the jobs we do.  This is consistent across humanity.  The gauge of respectability is the degree of removal from one's own dirt: how can you tell he's a king?  "He hasn't got shit all over him."  I don't believe this for a minute.  Whether society gives you respect for your job is a separate issue from how you respect yourself.  Sure it's hard to maintain your dignity in the face of social stigma, but you can do it, and take pride in your work, and that's what makes you a king among men.

On the other hand, I've heard others, with great smugness, say that they would never hire a maid to clean their homes.  People who can't clean up their own filth are victimizing others by forcing them to do it.  I don't believe this either.  My mother cleaned houses, briefly, when I was a small child, and there was nothing wrong with the work itself.  The only real unpleasantness was the behavior of the people she cleaned for.  In fact, there were few things in life that satisfied my mother like doing a good job cleaning something.  She only quit her last cleaning job because the client accused me of licking and sticking candies to the carpet under her couch.  Silly woman.  Poor kids do not waste candy, not even stale lemon drops.  She probably didn't really believe I did it, she just couldn't face the idea that her spoiled grandchildren were the real culprits.    

There is great dignity in service, there is self-respect in a job well done, especially a hard, dirty job.  There is an iron core of character that grows and strengthens every day that you do what you know is necessary for society to function, and do it with pride.  It has nothing to do with living your dreams, exploring your passions, or following your bliss.  It has nothing to do with your education or intelligence.  Just because you believe that you, or your child, are too good for certain jobs says nothing about those jobs, it only says bad things about you.  

Will you be able to look yourself in the eye if you find yourself one day scrubbing toilets to put food on the table?  Will you still be proud of your child if they pay off their student debt by taking their degree to the dog food cannery?  I still struggle with internalizing society's (and customers' (and occasional acquaintances',  friends', and families' )) low opinions of me, my job, and my pay (I get it, I have a pretty low opinion of my pay, too), but every day I get a little better, both at my job and at my attitude.

Work is dignity.  Keep that in mind the next time someone works for you: waiting at your table, ringing up your purchase, or scrubbing your toilet, and try to offer a little more respect.  And a tip.  Tips are good, too.


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