If you’re at all like me, you’ve spent the last couple weeks chuckling at images like these:
All of these memes in their varying levels of glory refer, of course, to Rowan County, Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to anyone after the Supreme Court’s ruling that brought same-sex marriage to all fifty states.
Nearly all of the media narrative about Kim Davis has focused around the idea that she feels religiously oppressed by her opponents’ insistence that she issue licenses for marriages she believes to be sinful. But what I’ve found more interesting is what the controversy—and the Internet hoopla exemplified by the memes above—says about our attitudes toward work in this nation.
The first time I saw a “still does his/her job” meme, I flashed on the number of emails I’ve received that contained the phrase, “I’ve always dreamed of writing for your magazine.”
I’ve received dozens of emails that included some variation on this sentiment. The worst was this: “It has always been a dream of mine to see my name in your publication.” I always want to write back, “And it’s always been a dream of mine to see my name atop the country music charts, but here we both are.”
Naturally, I’ve never sent this reply; it’d be, for lack of a better term, assy. But the fact remains that nobody’s dreams ever did anyone any good except the person him- or herself. And often, dreams cause us more anguish than they do pleasure. It’s supposed to be this way. Dreams are hard, and they require a lot of hard work. If not, there wouldn’t be things like alcoholism and careers in advertising.
The idea that the magazine that employs me—that any publication—exists so writers can see their names in print is the most wrongheaded way of thinking I can imagine when it comes to writing. A magazine—a good one, anyway—exists for its readers and them alone. [Many exist for their advertisers; many more exist for their publishers’ egos, but those are posts for another time.] And so a writer’s work, a photographer’s work, an illustrator’s work, a designer’s work—it must exist for the reader/viewer as well. Let’s hope it doesn’t exist for the sake of a paycheck—that’s just sad, considering what I know freelancers get paid.
And it’s not just creatives. Think back on some of your most annoying coworkers, the ones who spent more time planning the Columbus Day party and the Welcome Back From Having Strep Throat, Linda! party. They’re likely the same ones who spend more time on the phone with their husbands than they do on the phone with your customers. Let’s call them “Wendy.”
Or how about this one: I once saw a coworker promoted to management who proceeded, post-promotion, to walk around the floor talking to anyone who’d listen about whom he “liked” and didn’t “like.” Those he didn’t “like” earned hours of behind-the-back character assassination to those he did; within a couple weeks of his promotion he was listing those whom he was trying to get fired from their jobs. These were people for whom he had no supervisory power or responsibility and, in most cases, whose work he did not understand. But he didn’t “like” them, so they had to go. And in every case, he made their lives so miserable that they did—a couple were fired; nearly a dozen more (myself included, though I think I was in the “like” column) left for other, less toxic environments.
This coworker; “Wendy;” these people who drop their dreams at my feet, expecting me to pick them up and carry them the rest of the way—they’re all symptomatic of the same problem: There are many among us in the American workforce who seem to believe work exists so we can have jobs. But work exists because there’s work to be done.
If work exists just so you can have a job, then it doesn’t really matter what kind of job you do. If my magazine’s main purpose is to allow writers to see their names in print, it doesn’t matter what messes their drafts are. If the office exists so “Wendy” can plan parties and yell at her boyfriend over the phone, who gives a shit about the people who come into that office looking to hire a lawyer, decorate their homes, or have their pets put to sleep? If my former coworker’s whole project was to surround himself with those he “liked,” who was doing the actual work to which he’d just been promoted?
Which brings us back to Kim Davis. Why does she believe the office of Rowan County Clerk exists? Is it to give her a platform from which to express her political beliefs? Or is it to serve the people of Rowan County, Kentucky? Those who support Kim Davis argue that she shouldn’t have to do work that violates her conscience, but the fact that it violates her conscience doesn’t mean it’s not work and that it doesn’t fall to someone. The work of the Rowan County Clerk’s office doesn’t magically disappear because Kim Davis doesn’t feel she should have to do it. “Wendy’s” need to yell at her boyfriend doesn’t mean a customer didn’t just walk in. A writer’s dream of seeing his name in print doesn’t mean his story is a fit for our—or any other—magazine.
Going back to a field I know: If a publisher came to one of her journalists and said, “This company just bought twenty thousand dollars of advertising, so you will do a six-page feature about them in the next issue,” that journalist would be facing a crisis of conscience. If he or she couldn’t plead their case effectively, they’d quit on the spot. (For the sake of argument, let’s forget that this happens all the time and journalists often don’t quit over it).
But do you see how it works? If the duties outlined in your job description violate your ethical standards, you are by definition not qualified for said position. Because work isn’t—or at least shouldn’t be—about you.
We work to serve others—or, we should. We work to serve others, we get paid for our service, and the people we serve go back to their own work and, one day, may serve us in turn. Which brings me back to memes; this last one isn’t about Kim Davis, but it illustrates my point:
Let’s try as hard as we can to take ego out of our work. Paradoxically, I think we may find ourselves more fulfilled by the work itself—maybe not the boss, and maybe not the money, but by the work—than ever.