It is very tempting for men to think their job (actual position) is what they are. I am a lawyer; I am a cop; I am a programmer; I am a husband, father, and manager. The job gives them meaning and purpose. Without it they feel useless.
It is also very common for many neo-existentialists to advocate that men don’t need jobs at all. Fight Club is a popular cult movie among (young) men that advocates this. The main character Tyler Durden says,
“I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives.”
Both of these positions are wrong. I have so far advocated that a man can fulfill a manly calling in what I call the dominion mandate, but what has also frequently been called “The Protestant Work Ethic.” But many would interpret that as, “I am my job.” Tyler Durden counters that by saying, “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.” That’s true, but he concludes, “You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.” That is nihilism. It’s not true, and it leads to absurdity. Why build or do anything if we are nothing but “crap?” The conclusion of the movie “Fight Club” is destruction, mostly self-destruction.
You cannot be a man if you build nothing. You can be a waste of time and energy if you build nothing. You will leave nothing; you will have no legacy; and even if you do so accidentally this worldview means you will be gone once you are forgotten. The existential impetus for anything other than suicide is nil.
Why do all the heroes of our childhood, whether John Wayne or Indiana Jones, walk boldly into danger? Not stupidly or negligently, but cautiously and yet courageously. Why would they take that risk if they, everything else, and all existence are “crap?” These heroes have definite, objective, clear beliefs not only about the point of their existence, but of a morality they serve. *As a side note, Indiana Jones actually has to learn these principles throughout his movies, but on the AFI top 100 Heroes/Villains list you would find almost only examples of what I am talking about. Conversely almost all the villains are moral nihilists.*
Though I reject nihilism what is equally wrong and destructive is stoicism, the philosophy that rejects emotion and seeks to be as “logical” as possible. It is very common for American men to believe this. The practical conclusion is that there is little room for niceties. Life is about “family, work, and friends.” The most common elements become the point of existence. The problem with this is that it leads to the same conclusion as nihilism—that life is ultimately pointless.
Under both nihilism and stoicism, you might take a risk to serve your family, or something else that helps you identify a purpose taking up a significant portion of your time, but probably wouldn’t go beyond that. What if you don’t have a family? How do you determine your purpose? Why is family, or a job, or a vocation all there is? How can that account for the hermit heroes; the loners who have neither family, nor friends but end up being the truest, broadest heroes like Batman, or T.E. Lawrence or Rooster Cogburn? They don’t have families or friends, and yet they are willing to die to help people they don’t know and have barely met.
You cannot put your hope in a job or any vocation for your purpose. If you do what happens if you lose your job? What if you are called to do something that doesn’t have an immediate, tangible result? That is the case for most martyrs who die for principles not yet believed by most, and with no worldly promise of success. And yet they are some of the greatest heroes.
It is good to have a job. It is an effective, but not the sole, way to participate in the Protestant Work Ethic. However, making the world a better place is not only having a job. T.E Lawrence didn’t have a job (after he went rogue from being an officer in the British army). Luke Skywalker didn’t have a job (after he stopped being an officer for the Rebel Alliance). Jesus didn’t have a job (once he started his preaching ministry). But all of them made the world better.
Your job is the most common way for you to fulfill the dominion mandate. If you are participating in honest work the world will be better after you die than when you were born as far, as you are concerned. But it’s not the only way to fulfill the dominion mandate. And the goal is dominion, not a job. A boy who never held a job, but was killed on the beaches of Normandy at 18 years old fighting for the liberation of Europe did not fail simply because he didn’t have a job, or even a duty. The job is the means.
So Tyler Durden is wrong. It is good to have a job. It is good to be able to identify in what way you are contributing. Sometimes it is easier just to focus on the word: I am a mechanic; I am a lawyer; I am a cop; I am a programmer. That’s the way you are contributing. But being one of those jobs is not the goal in itself.
Sometimes guys need a reminder that you aren’t your job, but you’re also not “crap.” You are a hero, even if that heroism is demonstrated by listening to your boss gripe for three hours and then going home to have a dinner with your wife and kids before starting up again tomorrow.