What’s your attitude at work? The Greatest Showman OR the Greatest Sufferer?

Consider your attitude at work toward others—especially with people who are suffering, experiencing pain, or dealing with special needs. A study in contrasts often serves us well.

The star-studded, big-screen story captured my imagination and proved wildly entertaining. I was entranced by Phineas and Charity Barnum. The flick was riveting and the songs so memorable. But I also recall lines from a biblical story whose theme supplies a stunning counterpoint.

The Greatest Showman

Barnum collects various shocking personages from the streets of New York. All of them have distinguishing physical attributes, abilities, disadvantages and yes, disabilities. His cast includes the likes of Lettie Lutz (the bearded lady), Charles Stratton (General Tom Thumb), Lord of Leeds, the Albino Twins, the Strong Man, Woman in Gold, plus others. Many of these precious people were considered oddities and outcasts in society, as evidenced by the riotous protestors outside Barnum’s Circus. These featured characters attracted large crowds.

By movie’s end, Barnum has journeyed from rags to riches, and back to rags again. Following the disastrous fire, we are moved with emotion. His cast of “strange attractions” actually visit him in the saloon and implore him to come back, to restart again. They praise him as one who believed in them, accepted them—made them feel like family—so they urge him to not give up.

As movie goers, we are cheering for him as he comes home to Charity and his daughters. And to his cast of wonderful people, Barnum vows “from now on” he’ll rebuild. Barnum will be a better man. It’s a marvelous, feel-good tale, splendidly tailored for the big screen.

Alas, true history is seldom fully found on the big screen. With deeper research, P.T. Barnum’s own motives and shadow side can be seen in his glaring mistreatment of another human.

Something more to the story

In 1835, Barnum purchased Joice Heth, an elderly black woman, for one thousand dollars. She was an ancient, toothless, shriveled woman. The showman exhibited her as the supposed slave purchased by George Washington’s family back in 1727. Stunningly articulate, she could sing old hymns from the bygone era and tell tales of “little George.”

Barnum placed her on display in New York and purported her to be at least 161 years old. In local papers, Heth was publicized as “THE GREATEST NATURAL AND NATIONAL CURIOSITY IN THE WORLD.” It was an outrageous claim, but provided a captivating show attracting crowds and garnering Barnum a fortune. There was something even more outrageous, sad, and sinister about Barnum’s business.

Matthew Goodman explains the Showman’s motive: “Barnum, after all, wanted not youth but age, not vigor but feebleness, not strength but fragility. In Joice Heth he had found just what he was hoping for, a perfect combination of mental acuity and physical decrepitude. Though blind and paralyzed in nearly all of her limbs, the old woman had not lost her power of speech, and Barnum was struck—as were all who came to view her—by how sociable she was, how she kept up an almost constant conversation on a wide variety of topics.”[1] Goodman’s full account reveals the stunning hoax and utterly self-absorbed nature of Phinehas Barnum’s public display of this woman with disabilities.

The true story is so sad. He fully exploited Joice Heth as an oddity. In retrospect, I find it personally appalling to cheer for Phineas and his show.

The Greatest Sufferer

I recall another wildly successful business person in history. This man’s story goes from riches to rags to riches again. But his tale is long, arduous, and marked by personal lament during poignant suffering. Job is one of the most famous sufferers of all time. One day he had a full family, a flourishing household, land and wealth, but then in a sudden series of cataclysmic events, he lost it all.

Our biblical account of this amazing individual conveys much of his own wrestling through his suffering, via poetic lament. He pours out his complaint to his graciously listening God. In one such section, he presents his own case, his track record of work. It goes like this:

Whoever heard me spoke well of me,
    and those who saw me commended me,
12 because I rescued the poor who cried for help,
    and the fatherless who had none to assist them.
13 The one who was dying blessed me;
    I made the widow’s heart sing.
14 I put on righteousness as my clothing;
    justice was my robe and my turban.
15 I was eyes to the blind
    and feet to the lame.
16 I was a father to the needy;
    I took up the case of the stranger.
17 I broke the fangs of the wicked
    and snatched the victims from their teeth. (Job 29:11-17)

So intriguing to realize this wholly unique attitude: Job passionately helped sufferers. Though he was now suffering himself, his posture at work had been one of helping those in need.

Job’s explanation of how he had personally worked on behalf of other sufferers supplies a powerful foretaste, an early anticipation of an even greater one to come, Jesus. The Greatest Sufferer was the ultimate worker of wonders for others who suffered. He brought sight to the blind, steps to the lame, bread for the hungry, and ultimate blessing to the dying. The One who took up the cross had already been bearing a cross on behalf of others in need.

Blessing other sufferers through your work

What if instead of Barnum’s outlook, we aim to conduct our business affairs like Job—and ultimately, Jesus? What if we very deliberately work to bless others in need?

In Work: The Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster notes the importance of self-denial:

Isn’t this exactly what the Lord requires of those who would be his followers? Self-denial for self-giving to others—that’s what we do through our jobs! “Take up your cross,” the Lord adds . . . Yes, the Bible takes full account of the wounds inflicted by working. And God instructs us that in suffering these to give our selves to the service of others, we follow the way set before his followers by the Lord Jesus himself.[2]

I am challenged to lay down “greatest showman” attitudes this week. May I instead take up the attitude of the “Greatest Sufferer,” Jesus!

Will you join me? As we more clearly sense others’ needs, let’s make plans to shoulder their burdens. Let’s take up their causes, create more accessibility, level the playing field, right the wrongs, help them heal, and mobilize to deeply serve others in our work with the attitude of Christ Jesus.


[1]THE SUN AND THE MOON: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-bats in Nineteenth-century New York, p. 115ff.

[2]Work: The Meaning of Your Life, p. 36-38.

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