Bearing the Mostly Terrible, Not-So-Forever Job
“What if the person died several days ago?” I once asked Dale. He removes bodies from houses and sees his work as ministry. As part of our series Called to the Firing Line, Sam Van Eman explores job difficulty, its relativity, and how every job can be used for good.
For eight seasons, Mike Rowe hosted the television show Dirty Jobs, which took viewers inside employment settings with the coldest temperatures, longest days, highest risk, and grossest smells. From animal bone charring to shark suit testing, from venom extracting to lift pump replacing (don’t ask), Rowe covered it all—and it often covered him.
Simultaneously, the Discovery Channel aired Deadliest Catch, a live account of the hunt for Alaskan king crabs in the Bering Sea. Watching a fisherman slip too fast across the deck toward dark, icy waters makes you squeeze the couch cushion. It’s the fisherman’s life in peril, not yours, but adrenaline hardly knows the difference.
If you’ve watched either show, you might remember shaking your head in disbelief.
While the worst jobs may boast greater risks, much of the nail-biting occurs because we cannot fathom that sort of employment. Our own work is so very different. Yet who’s to say that the fisherman wouldn’t catch an inside glimpse of your work environment and shake his head in disbelief? We all have our tolerances, and the scale measures more than just physical danger.
At some point, in one way or another, each of us experiences work so terrible that we proclaim, “This is the worst.” That experience is not all bad, believe it or not. And it isn’t forever. In fact, in our series on being Called to the Firing Line, what we discover upon closer look are a few truths that help us deal honestly with workplace pain:
- Pain is more contextual than universal. What makes one employee dry heave at the start of the work day makes another think it’s a walk in the park.
- Pain is more manageable than fixed. We do have a measure of autonomy over what pain we’ll face at work, but not all choices are beneficial.
- Pain is more inspirational than confining. Digging ditches only hurts in the beginning, and moral decisions weigh most the first time we face them. Training like this pays dividends in the future, should the need arise.
Pain Is More Contextual Than Universal
My friend Dale has never met Mike Rowe, but he could have. Dale does “removals.” When someone falls dead of an aneurism in the shower or from tumbling down the basement steps, Dale gets a call from the funeral home. Then he and a partner drive to the house to remove the body. Dale and I were having an ice cream cone together when I learned about his work. The questions wouldn’t stop:
What if it happens in the middle of the night?
And what if the person was obese?
That’s why I take a colleague.
What if the person died several days ago?
It’s rough, but we can’t leave them there.
Well, what if a relative looks on from the doorway in hysterics?
Do you still, you know, get the body? (Is it okay to say "body," Dale?)
Sure, it’s okay. And, yes, we have to.
He smiled, and I grabbed another napkin to wipe the ice cream from my hand and now soggy cone. I had spent four summers in college laboring on commercial rooftops—roofs so hot that the glue in your sneakers would melt, separating the sole from the shoe. But this seemed like another category of hard altogether. Was it? Were removals tougher than roofing?
Yes and no. What I saw as challenging, Dale saw as routine. It became clear that difficulty comes in varying ways and at varying degrees. One pastor carries too much spiritual weight; another maintains balance. One inner-city teacher has panic attacks regarding physical safety; another feels at-home in the classroom. One corporate secretary finds himself wedged between executive orders and his own conscience; another sees clearly. Certain jobs make for better television, but the difficulty list is subjective. If you’ve been to the firing line at work, you know how true this can be.
Pain Is More Manageable Than Fixed
We see that context matters. We can’t simply avoid the bottom portion of the jobs list and guarantee a smooth ride. Trouble lurks throughout, including in those dream spots at the top. We’re not exactly trapped, though. The second truth—that workplace pain is more manageable than fixed—offers wiggle room. We can choose jobs known for trouble, or we can choose routes known for safety. We can quit, we can fire, we can ask work from home. In other words, we have options.
Consider the following employment scenarios. Each one has room for autonomy, though none is immune from consequences.
Like a fisherman who laughs at the thought of quitting the crab boats, Dale exudes a similar resolve. Risks are real for both men. Unplanned phone calls drag Dale from peaceful sleep. At any point he could throw his back and land in the tub with the body he’s attempting to remove. For me, that work is nuts. For him, it’s an exercise in dignity. He weighed the physical and emotional risks of the job against the dispositional and professional gifts he had to offer, and said yes. The fact that Dale sees it as ministry only furthers his resolve to do it well.
In this scenario, suffering is unavoidable. But the wise make the suffering more sustainable by assessing their potential to handle the work, come what may. Fools, on the other hand, jump in and suffer needlessly.
We admire those who accept danger in their jobs. The courage they inspire, unfortunately, does not always compel us to follow in their footsteps.
For example, children need to be rescued from brothels—even now, as you read this sentence—but we choose to meet appointment quotas instead. Who has the emotional strength to work the streets as an undercover cop or even as an undercover novelist?
Minerals need to be drawn from the earth to supply materials for computer screens, car transmissions, house keys, and heat, but we choose to edit articles instead (as important as it is!). Mining is physically dangerous, and we have families to support and long lives to live.
Cantankerous bosses need the influence of gracious employees, but we choose to look elsewhere instead. Too much interpersonal stress interrupts our sleep, and we have better things to do than put up with tyrants.
The further we proceed into our careers, the more tweaks we apply to make life comfortable. Masochists seek pain. The rest of us feather our vocational nests. The relationship with difficulty is ours to decide, and it’s true that not everyone can rescue children for a living. But when comfort trumps a legitimate call or becomes an idol, everybody suffers worse in the long run.
Some of us ask for challenge and receive it, and some of us avoid it. In the final scenario, others of us have neither received it, nor avoided it, and we wonder if something is wrong. I used to meet with a group of friends for breakfast and a book discussion. By the middle of The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the guys confessed, “What should I do if my faith doesn’t cost me?” We uttered a collective “uh-huh.” He continued. “I really enjoy using my gifts at work. I know my particular job serves the world. Every morning I pray to be salt and light. I stand behind my convictions. Why do I feel guilty? What am I missing?”
We each made similar confessions that ended the same way: “What’s missing?” Believing that God cares about work, we voted against ditching the bank job for Bible translation or sales for youth ministry. Besides, we knew missionaries who ask the same question, in reverse. Due to familiarity or boredom, they too wonder, “Would using my talents in an office better serve the kingdom of God?”
This discussion posed a bit of a quandary. Bonhoeffer seems rather extreme in his interpretation of what it means to be a disciple, though we all agreed that following Jesus should come with a cost. We talked about whether we should try to manufacture a cost where it didn’t currently exist. Bonhoeffer opposes that as well. Reflecting on Luke 9:57-62, he writes, “The … would-be disciple … thinks that following Christ means that he must make the offer on his own initiative, as if it were a career he had mapped out for himself."
Without clear instruction, the challenge-missing employee is left with little guidance. So we turn to one general answer that, perhaps, applies to all three scenarios.
Pain Is More Inspirational Than Confining
Whether we’re willing to jump into the fray, eager to avoid the fray, or unable to find anything resembling the fray, Jesus offers advice. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). What if there’s nothing, or not much, to deny? What if there’s no cross, or no big cross, to bear? Then we do what remains. We follow. In the bank, on the crab boat, making editorial marks. Dale will handle the deceased, Señora Cortez will teach Spanish, my neighbor will deliver hot dog and hamburger buns. The Bonhoeffers will oppose regimes, IJM will scour the streets, miners will produce non-stick coating for your pans.
Because one day, when the time is right to stand or when the time for the thing that threatens to undo us comes to undo us, Jesus will look us in the eyes and say, “Are you ready?” In that moment, we’ll stuff a rucksack with the myriad observations and lessons and articles of faith we gathered in easier times. Then we’ll deny ourselves and take up the cross.
I’m convinced we’ll know when that time comes. And if it feels scarier, harder, or stranger than anything before, it won’t matter because we’ll know, and knowing can make even the worst jobs feel like a walk in the park.