Everyman in the Modern Age
16 May 2009
There is famous medieval morality play titled Everyman in which an ordinary man is made to face the meaning of his life. In the play, this confrontation comes in the form of a conversation with Death, as in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal it comes in the form of a chess game with Death. Yet existential soul-searching can come in many forms, and may be precipitated by life crises of many kinds.
We have all today heard the term “career suicide” to identify self-destructive stupidity that brings a swift end to one’s socioeconomic status. In the industrialized world, this is a kind of death — career death, which in some circumstances is brought about by career suicide, while in other cases it is brought about by career homicide (i.e., the politics of personal destruction). Since in industrialized society we are encouraged to invest our hopes and dreams in our jobs and careers, in the way that former ages encouraged the faceless mass of the peasantry to invest their hopes in a better world beyond this life, career death can be as traumatic and as devastating as any existential crisis.
At present I am listening to a rather trivial book, How Starbucks Saved My Live: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else, by Michael Gates Gill. It is difficult to justify this to myself, but it is easy to listen to and is something of a break from my usual fare. The book is essentially the story of the death of a career, the existential crisis occasioned thereby, and a re-evaluation of the author’s life in view of his altered circumstances.
Any story — even the story of a remarkably privileged life — can be animated and made interesting by a great writer, but Mr. Gill is apparently a very mediocre man, and (fortunately) aware of his mediocrity. He is the Everyman of the Industrial Age, and he does an honest and passably fair job of so portraying himself.
What happens when a mediocre man discovers his mediocrity and loses the privilege to which he previously believed himself entitled? Well, he presents himself as having improved as a human being as a result of this change in socioeconomic status. No doubt he did change for the better. However, he wishes to frame the things he learned from this change as universal human truths.
Having discovered, late in his life, the virtue and dignity of labor, he conflates this same virtue and dignity with a calling. While it is true that some people, perhaps many people, have a calling for service, and indeed some people define a calling in terms of service, not all callings in life are a calling to service. Mr. Gill obviously learned something about himself and about the world from his experience of service — viz. the service industry as represented by Starbucks — and I would not want to deny the value of this knowledge painfully acquired.
Forgive me, if you can, for quibbling, but it could be argued that service as a calling and the service industry are two starkly different things. The service industry is the industrialization of service, and one can reasonably ask whether that spirit which animates service and can transform it into a calling can be captured within the context of the service industry. I do not deny that it can be so captured; I only suggest that it is an open question if it can be captured. Having worked for a living my entire adult life but never having worked in the service industry or in retail, I cannot speak with first-hand knowledge of the experience of industrialized service.
I have personally known people who have come from a life of privilege and who have entered the working class late in life. It is not an unusual occurrence today. Many of them adapt well, even admirably. But some are so transformed by the ordeal of change that they think that everyone needs to engage in the kind of service sector labor in which they were able to find themselves. While I think it is a wonderful thing for a person to find themselves, even late in life, life is much more than labor and service, however virtuous, dignified, eye-opening or consciousness-raising.
The vast majority of people who fill jobs in the service sector don’t usually find these jobs to be very inspirational (even if they are good at what they do) because they have mostly known little else in their lives. Most people with jobs at Starbucks haven’t had the opportunity, prior to their career as a barista, to obtain an Ivy League degree in art history, to run with the bulls in Pamplona for the festival of San Fermin before they are twenty, to meet Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and other literary lights, and so forth. Thus for Mr. Gill, working an “ordinary” job at Starbucks was a new experience. Most people stuck in dead end jobs have known nothing else. The parallel to Mr. Gill’s life would be to take someone from the working class and then, late in life, to show them the world and expose them to a life a privilege. No doubt they would learn as much from this as Mr. Gill learned from joining the working classes.
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