Henry’s American Dream

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Henry grew up poor. Not destitute mind you, but deprived in a way that left him both hungry and thankful at the same time. As such, his only goal in life became the typical one—Henry wanted the money that a good job would bring him. Since he was neither mechanically nor intellectually inclined, that meant factory work. He was hired into one of the local factories two weeks after his high school graduation.

Henry was the model employee. He worked every shift, every overtime, every holiday. By the time he was twenty-five, he was making more money than most of our town's elite citizens. By twenty-six, he had bought a fancy truck and an even fancier house. Then he bought a boat.

The boat was a head-scratcher for most of us. We knew Henry wouldn't take the time off to drive to the nearest lake. But he said a boat was The Thing To Have. "Successful people have boats," he told me. Sometimes he'd hitch it up to the back of his truck and drive it around town so people could see how nice it was. And it was nice. There wasn't a scratch on it. Because it was never in the water.

Sure, there was a downside. Henry's dedication to his job left him with little time for anything else. He never married, never had children. His friendships were limited to the people he worked alongside each day. Though raised in a Christian home, he drifted from his faith. Sundays were overtime days. By Henry's reckoning, double time was worth more than church time. He had to keep the money coming in, after all. He had to pay for the fancy truck and the fancy house and the fancy boat he never used.

But then came the manufacturing explosion in Asia. Then the recession. Both brought hard times and hard decisions. In the end, Henry was offered a choice—retire or be laid off.

People still talk about Henry's farewell party.

His entire shift gathered for the meal. Presents and cards were given. Even the plant manager made an appearance to offer a plaque and a gold (plated) watch to honor Henry's forty years of work.

Henry couldn't contain his emotions when he was asked to speak. It was so heartwarming, so appropriate. He stood there in front of everyone trying to remain calm. His coworkers and supervisors stood and applauded, moved by such an outpouring of gratitude.

Everyone sat to dab their eyes as Henry walked to the microphone. He looked out over the crowd, choking back tears. Then he swallowed and gave his speech.

"I've wasted so much life," he said.

And then he wept.

Henry died four months later. Heart attack, the doctor said. Emptiness, said others. The state auctioned off his truck and his house. The boat, too. The funeral was only sparsely attended; all of his friends were working.

But I keep those five words he said close. It's a warning, I think. One to never confuse self-worth with net worth.

Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups

• Is your self-worth too closely associated with your occupation or status?
• What can you do to ensure you don't get so caught up in life that you forget to live it?
• Can success be better measured by what it allows us to do rather than what it allows us to have?
• For more about the dangers of confusing our self-worth and our net worth, read Ed Gungor's article "Work for God, Not Money."