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.

Remembering Kobe, comforting kids, and the work of grieving

We were driving through West Virginia, headed back from visiting our middle son at college in Kentucky. Our youngest, Josiah, suddenly called. “Mom, Dad, did you hear? Kobe Bryant just died in a helicopter crash.” Similar to everyone, we were stunned. I must have said “Oh no, Jos’—that’s so sad” at least a dozen times in the next two minutes. In the hours to come, we learned further details, including the horrific loss of his daughter, Gianna, and seven others.

Such moments are surreal for everyone. When we got home mid-evening, our family conversations continued, including prayers for the Bryant family. Such a tragedy is so much for a sports-loving fourteen-year-old and his friends to process. (Good grief, it’s a lot for parents to process as well.) So many feelings, so much sorrow and heartache.

I’m struck by the reality: there is a collective work about grieving that we do better together. Perhaps you remember 9-11, or the space shuttle Challenger’s explosion, or even JFK’s assassination. In our shock at such events, we abruptly pause. We inhale the sudden sting and exhale our angst with tears. I am moved in such moments that we always have the opportunity to either duck and hide, push away the conversations, run from the pain, or we can collectively work through it and let something new and good happen inside us. I am convinced that if we boldly, courageously embrace the work of such collective grieving, we can actually grow stronger.

When facing grief, both our own and others’, it’s important we resist every urge—both self-induced and pushed by others—to rush our responses. Quick fixes and pithy spiritual platitudes are rarely productive. Don’t hurry yourself to get over your grief, and be very careful what you say to friends and family when they are experiencing loss. H. Norman Wright cites a number of our well-intended but too-often unhelpful, potentially even pain-producing clichés.

Big boys don’t cry.

You’ve just got to get ahold of yourself.

Cheer up.

Time will heal.

Life goes on.

This is the work of the devil.

Count your blessings.

God never gives us more than we can handle.

I know just how you feel.

If there is anything I can do, just call me.[1]

We dare not hurry ourselves and loved ones to quickly process grief, to “just get over it,” and get on with life. But we can choose to get back up, step forward, and trust God with bigger hope. When you are ready, you can choose to walk a fresh path. You can focus on God’s provision for your brighter future. You can boldly embrace your fresh start toward a deeper faith—an overcoming, hope-filled trust to match your deepest grief.

Blocking and shoving

In their original, sidesplitting blockbuster, Shrek and Donkey are camping outside, guarding Princess Fiona as she sleeps in the cave. Staring at the stars and moon, Donkey decides to play therapist and confront Shrek about his threat to build a wall around his swamp to keep everyone out. In their terse, back-and-forth interchange, Donkey makes the now famous and oft-quipped statement (at least it’s quoted often in the Pletcher house), “You cut me deep, Shrek. You cut me real deep!” With a sullen face and folded arms, Shrek abruptly rolls to his other side. Donkey gets in his face. “You’re blocking.” “No, I’m not!” Shrek adamantly denies as he rolls to his other side. “Yes, you are!” Donkey retorts.

Remembering Kobe serves as a healthy reminder for us all. Grieving can and should be cathartic. How often do we self-protect, block others, or otherwise try to hide what we’re really feeling, unwilling to let others see us grieve? Especially with our kids or at the office, in the shop, or out on the production floor—how preposterous would that be, to let others know you are grieving?

Kristin Brown courageously ponders four principles for better grieving. She urges—

Don’t feel ashamed to show your grief. You may be worried about crying at odd times, like in the middle of a meeting. Give yourself permission to be a little less poised.

Avoid making major decisions while grieving. Some decisions may be unavoidable. But for those that seem optional, it’s best to wait until your thinking is less clouded.

Don’t interrupt or abbreviate your season of grief, but productive work is healthy. Both hope and joy can co-exist with sorrow and sadness. Putting your hand to the plow with tears coming down your face is not a bad thing.

Share in the sorrow of those who are grieving around you. People in grief want to know that others are, in a sense, carrying some of the sorrow that they are experiencing.[2]

Catharsis at work

A dusty Hebrew proverb says: “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy” (Proverbs 14:10). Here is the salty, sincere mix, those raw reflections on the fragile nature of our human hearts. For the hours and days to come, there will be a bitter-sweet, ongoing work in remembering and grieving Kobe.

Already last night, Josiah and some of his baseball friends were reflecting. Over the years, they have commonly recognized Kobe’s GOAT (greatest-of-all-time) status with a fun ritual. During practices, they gather up dozens of stray baseballs and throw them into the coach’s bucket. As they throw them, they shout “Kobe!” It’s been their ongoing expression of adoration for the legend. Last evening, a number of the boys—including several of us big-boy coaches and dads—were lamenting how that toss of baseballs toward the bucket will never be the same again. Down deep we chuckle, and then more tears roll.

What if we allow remembering Kobe to do a good work in us? Perhaps we’ll talk more openly together—big kids and little kids—about what it means to grieve and also find fresh hope. Maybe we’ll talk more deeply together about what it means to truly live life to the full. Let’s squeeze our kids tighter. Let’s hold each other—family and friends—even closer. Let’s listen well and even more intentionally affirm our kids, friends, and coworkers. We all need listening ears and encouragement.

Go ahead and cry. Oh yes, cry tears. That’s healthy. But don’t stop with tears. Let’s encourage each other to choose a bigger and better hope. May we all be more tender and caring with one another. We live in such divisive, hate-mongering, quarrelsome times. Perhaps such care, tenderness, and hope in the face of grief might propel us into an ongoing love and stronger civility.

What if we deliberately work toward more genuine love, that depth of selflessness and others-orientation that our loving Creator intended from the start? Let’s remember Kobe, and let our collective grieving lead us to both receive and give God-like love more deeply and freely.

[1]Wright, Helping Those Who Hurt, 32–33.

[2]Brown, “Why We Can—and Should—Grieve at Work.” The Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics blog. Tifwe.org

One Extremely Trendy, Very Dangerous Thing We Do at Work

judgingothers

We were stunned. No one would help us. My wife, Nancy, and I stood in the men’s department of a fine store, looking at new suits. In my mid-20s and having just completed my master’s degree, I was about to start a new job. I had received a very generous graduation gift, so we allocated it toward new dress clothes. I donned a navy pinstripe blazer and stared into the mirror, contemplating how seriously good I looked. Sales clerks were busy, apparently too busy laughing and chatting. After some awkward moments of no assistance, Nanc’ walked over to the sales counter and asked a question, anticipating that her inquiry might shake out some attention. Met with a curt answer, the associate’s nonverbal responses screamed, “I’d really rather not be pestered.” He quickly returned to his animated conversation with work cronies. They glanced my way and chuckled.

After several more minutes of being ignored, we looked at each other and shook our heads. We knew exactly what was taking place. They had sized me up, performed a snap judgment, and decided that I was not worthy of their time. “Too young. Not nearly professional enough in his current garb.” Apparently, I did not fit the profile of the typical big spenders who frequented their department. Why bother with me?

Snarky judgment and snide comments are extremely trendy, all-too-much the norm in our daily workplaces. Stephen Graves wisely urges leaders: “An organization that values people will demonstrate care by . . . how it communicates with people . . . It will treat them with kindness, fairness, dignity, justice, and compassion . . . intentional about treating people decently.”[1]

Jesus made a very pointed prohibition in Matthew 7:1. “Do not judge . . .” And he proceeded to explain the rationale for his caution. Judging other people makes us very vulnerable in return. Jesus knew that judging others often has a boomerang effect. How do judgmental attitudes show up with our coworkers, employees, and clients? We think and say things like,

  • “That had to be one of the most ludicrous presentations I’ve ever seen!”
  • “Can you believe she only turned in those measly numbers last quarter?”
  • “He is certainly not the sharpest crayon in the box. Can you believe he . . . ?”
  • “I know before I even open this doc, their proposal is going to be a real joke.”
  • “Whatever you do, don’t invite her to go to the conference. She always . . .”

Jesus probed: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:3-5). Extra-stunning to realize—Jesus was employing a comical picture, most likely straight out of his own experiences with woodworking in his family’s carpentry business (Mark 6:3). Jesus was no stranger to flying sawdust and boards.

judgenot—plankeye

Judging others at work is extremely dangerous. Christ calls us to work humble and helpful, not judgmental and hurtful. First, I must make certain I have addressed my own integrity issues before I jump to scold or correct others. First, I need to truly bring my A-game to the team before I label others as inadequate for the job. When I do believe I have genuinely discerned that something should improve or someone has room to grow, I must employ kind, empowering methods of addressing what/who needs changed (Gal 6:1-2). Work humble and helpful, not judgmental and hurtful.

A wise practice is to pause regularly for self-evaluation. Good doses of personalized judgment are healthy for our workplace interaction and influence. Two questions can assist you:

  • With which coworkers or clients do you need to stop being judgy, and instead, start being more humble and helpful?
  • Any wooden planks you need to first remove from your own eye, before you help someone remove their sawdust?

Nanc’ and I moved on to another store to make my professional clothing purchases. There is serious irony in the salespeople’s jump-to-judgment about me that day. What they did not know was that I had more than enough money in my pocket, a stash of cash thick enough to purchase not one, but two very fine suits. Though they never knew it, their judgmental outlook cost them some serious commission. Judging others at work can prove very dangerous. To this day, we chuckle over how they judged me, and all the more over their self-incurred loss in the process.

[1]Stephen R. Graves. The Gospel Goes to Work: God’s Big Canvas of Calling and Renewal. (Fayetteville, AR: KJK Inc. Publishing) 2015, p. 125.