I recently read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. The hillbillies referenced in the title are white, working class Americans of Scots-Irish descent whose ancestors settled in Appalachia. Though raised in Appalachian culture, Vance didn’t grow up in Appalachia proper; a few decades before he was born his grandparents had migrated from Jackson, Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, attracted by the good-paying jobs at the steel plant there.

As with many other rust belt cities, the Middletown factory has been in decline for decades. The conventional explanation for the crisis among poor working class whites is economic: there aren’t enough good-paying jobs available. Vance, however, thinks that “this story of economic insecurity is, at best, incomplete.” (p. 13; all page numbers are from the large-print edition) He draws on the example of a summer job he had at a tile distribution center in Middleville. Though the work was stable and the pay was decent, the managers couldn’t find minimally reliable workers to fill open positions. Why the lack of decent workers in an economically depressed community? Vance wrote his book in order to explore “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (p. 16)

In what follows, I’m not going to summarize Vance’s memoir; for those looking for such a summary, consider reading the review in the Washington Post. I’m more interested in exploring one aspect of the crisis, namely the difficulty those from working class Appalachia seem to have in finding a suitable master narrative.

The term ‘master narrative’ comes from narrative psychology (which is described well in this article), a branch of psychology which holds that our identities consist largely of the life stories we construct. Master narratives are like blueprints or templates we follow in constructing our life stories (and thus, in constructing our lives). Cultures typically provide one or more master narratives that a young member of that culture can use to structure her self-concept and guide her choices. In my case, I followed the master narrative that I had seen demonstrated by my father and grandfather: diligent at school, then a hard worker; family oriented; my meaning and purpose found in the Christian faith. Though the broad strokes of our enacted narratives were similar, there were differences in the details: unlike them, my story didn’t include service to my country as a citizen-soldier but did include a commitment to the intellect and life of the mind that wasn’t important to them. Neither they nor I authored the template we used for thinking about ourselves or living our lives; all the elements were drawn from our cultural setting.

So how have the working class poor lost a master narrative? Vance’s story includes numerous ways in which the master narrative that once held sway lost its relevance. For example, he tells of his grandmother (“Memaw”) and her brothers reacting violently towards anyone who threatened family possessions or honor–Memaw at twelve shooting a man who stole the family’s cow, for example, or Uncle Teabury making a man who insulted his sister eat her underpants. Vance reflects, “…these were classic good and evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something–defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes.” (p. 30) Defending personal and family honor was a component of their master narrative.

But what happens when you work in a factory and are expected to let minor slights to your honor go by rather than disrupt the workplace? Even worse, what happens if what threatens your honor is not some jerk talking about your sister but elites who look at you with contempt or corporations that cut your pay to the point that your family needs to rely on food stamps? You lose the ability to defend your honor and that aspect of the master narrative is no longer available to you.

Here’s another example. Vance’s grandparents both believed fervently in hard work and personal responsibility. Papaw labored at the steel plant every day, proud that he earned much more than did the relatives back in Kentucky. Mamaw told J.D. “Never be like those f*cking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can be anything you want to.” (p. 56,7)

But what happens if you grow up and the steel mill has stopped hiring? And you’re told that you should go to college, but no one in your family ever has and you have no idea of how to get there? Then, you’re likely to lose hard work and personal responsibility as part of the master narrative; you may give lip service to them, but you no longer live according to them.

Besides losing elements of their master narrative pertaining to honor, responsibility, and the value of hard work, the working class whites described by Vance have lost their master narrative regarding who or what they adulate or worship. Vance notes that “As a culture, we had no heroes.” p. 273) This is significant, for heroes are exemplars–people whose lives are worth imitating. Those without heroes are likely to drift through life with little sense of direction.

Regarding worship, Vance makes this striking assertion:

“Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.” p. 275

I suspect this is an overstatement. A good portion of Appalachia is in the Bible Belt, and even casual Bible readers learn that the God of the Bible forbids his followers from worshiping anything besides him. Thus, at least the more devout in the culture would be motivated to avoid the idolatry of in elevating the nation to the point where it is a source of ultimate meaning. Even so, Vance has identified a real problem here: the master narrative of national pride has been lost. He notes that ” much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s, and my community’s identity derives from our love of country.” (p. 234) The country that they so loved let them down:

“Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream–a steady wage.” (p.. 273,4)

The master narrative associated with love of nation and with the American Dream no longer seems viable, and no other story has come along to take its place. Vance’s book has been seen by many as providing insight into the Trump voter. If this is so, perhaps it would be fair to see the Trump voter as someone desperate to reclaim a master narrative by which to live his or her life. Success at this project won’t be accomplished by deporting immigrants, repealing Obamacare, or enacting protectionist legislation. Ultimately it’s about restoring honor and making it possible for those who were disillusioned to have heroes again. It’s about lower class working whites being able to stitch together lives they are proud of.

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I recently read an interview at the Atlantic website with Miya Tokumitzu, author of the book Do What You Love and Other Lies about Success and Happiness. In the original article out of which the book grew, Tokumitzu wrote:

Do what you love“There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.”

Most workers are dehumanized, in her view, because most work isn’t lovable–it’s dreary and mindless. Only those from privileged backgrounds have the luxury of choosing work they love rather than work they need to survive. And those eager to do work they are passionate about regardless of the circumstances are often mistreated by employers:

“Ironically, DWYL reinforces exploitation even within the so-called lovable professions where off-the-clock, underpaid, or unpaid labor is the new norm: reporters required to do the work of their laid-off photographers, publicists expected to Pin and Tweet on weekends, the 46 percent of the workforce expected to check their work email on sick days. Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.”

In the Atlantic interview Tokumitzu suggests that the impetus behind DWYL is the desire for happiness. She thinks that the WWII generation was still under the influence of the Protestant work ethic, which views work as a calling, but the Boomer generation discarded calling in favor of a culture of the self, characterized by “thinking about what makes me happy and how to improve myself.” She thinks that “the virtue strain of work and the self strain of work combined in the late 1970s and 1980s, and in a way pleasure-seeking became the virtue.”

When people seek work they love, are they just seeking pleasure, though? Tokumitzu thinks that DWYL is a form of self-indulgence, but I suspect it derives more from a desire for self-fulfillment. And self-fulfillment isn’t just a more acceptable way to speak about being self-centered. Charles Taylor suggests that there is a moral force behind the modern drive to self-fulfillment:

“What we need to explain is what is peculiar to our time. It’s not just that people sacrifice their love relationships, and the care of their children, to pursue their careers. Something like this has perhaps always existed. The point is that today many people feel called to do this, they feel they ought to do this, feel their lives would be somehow wasted or unfulfilled if they didn’t do it.” The Ethics of Authenticity, p. 17

For Taylor, what these workers are pursuing is not pleasure or happiness but authenticity. Taylor briefly traces the history of the moral ideal of authenticity from the Romantic era until recent times. A particularly important contribution was that of German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, who suggested that each of us has an original way of being human. We each need to discover our own way of being human, ignoring societal pressures that would distract us from this quest. Aren’t those who want to do work they love seeking to be authentic in this way? Aren’t they trying to be true to their unique nature in the work they do?

Taylor points out that this struggle for authenticity won’t succeed if it is just an inner quest. Defining our authentic selves requires interaction with others; it is a dialogic process. Also, defining ourselves can only be done successfully in the context of some “horizon of significance,” that is, some perspective on what constitutes a meaningful or significant life, whether this horizon comes from God or nature or science or some other source.

If Taylor is right, then it may make good sense to do what we love. We just need to be in dialog with others when looking for what we love. We also need to think of the horizon of significance in which that love operates. I wrote a few years ago about work and calling, pointing out that the idea of calling has been secularized and arguing for a recovery of a more sacred sense of being called for a particular purpose. Perhaps such an infusion of overarching meaning into the workplace would mean that in doing what we love we would be true to ourselves in a way that doesn’t make personal happiness the sole criterion of what we should do.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar questions.

Chef-Movie

I recently saw the movie “Chef”—written, directed by, produced by, and starring Jon Favreau, now in theaters. Favreau plays Chef Carl Casper, who ten years ago was a hot young gastronomic talent but has settled in as the featured attraction at an upscale Los Angeles restaurant. He’s been repeating the same tried and true recipes for years, encouraged to do so by Riva, the restaurant owner, who doesn’t want customers ruffled by innovative fare. Carl creates a new menu he intends to use in order to impress influential food critic Ramsey MIchel (Oliver Plait) who was one of his early boosters. Riva pressures him to stay with his “greatest hits” during Ramsey’s visit, and Carl complies. Eating this unoriginal fare, Ramsey rightly concludes that Carl is stuck in a rut and writes a scathing review.

Stung, Carl is mortified to learn from his 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony) that the negative review has been seen by thousands on Twitter. Carl is divorced from Percy’s mom, and has put Percy on the back burner, so to speak, so he could focus on his cooking. Asked for help and hoping for a closer relationship with his dad, Percy agrees to set up a Twitter account for Carl, who wants to read responses the review. Further disturbed by people’s derision of him, Carl impulsively picks an online fight with Ramsey. This eventually results in a blow-up with Riva, then a rant that is recorded by restaurant patrons and becomes a viral video. Humiliated, broke, and out of a job, Carl is adrift. He says, “I don’t know what to do. I’ve never not known what to do.”

As Carl sees it, he was happy with his life until these complications arose. The women around him—his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and the restaurant’s hostess Molly (Scarlett Johansson)—tell him otherwise, that he hasn’t been happy for some time. Midlife often brings about this sort of situation. We’ve constructed a life that seems successful. We tell ourselves we are happy with it, even while others who know us well think otherwise. Then something happens, and we discover we aren’t happy after all. The movie suggests, I think accurately, that we can’t be trusted to honestly answer inquiries about our own happiness. We have too much at stake. Those who observe us over time can more reliably gauge our satisfaction with life.

At a loss, Carl considers a suggestion from Inez that he take over a run-down food truck owned by Marvin (Robert Downey, Jr.), another ex-husband. Aided by Percy and his former line chef Martin (John Leguizamo), Carl sets up his kitchen in the truck. The three of them then take a joyful cross-country jaunt, selling Cuban sandwiches to eager hordes called forth, pied-piper-like, by Percy’s tweets.

Carl succeeds, in other words, when he gets away from Riva, the uptight boss, and Ramsey, the acerbic critic. We all have people like this in our lives, but they aren’t easy to get away from, because they are found not only around us, but inside us.

As with Carl, we get cautious after a while. We’ve figured out something that seems to work—why not just stick with it? Riva discourages Carl from innovating by reminding him of past failures. Remember when you put organ meat on the menu? Nobody ordered it. Don’t risk that sort of mistake again. Carl probably complies because his inner dialogue offers the same cautions. So he experiments with new dishes in a protected environment–his own kitchen–but serves the same old fare to the customers. Whatever our area of endeavor, we are tempted to keep our new ideas to ourselves but serve up to others what is safe—and bland.

But we aren’t happy, because the other side, the critic who expects us to do more, also resides within us. Carl’s fury at Ramsey probably has the intensity it does because at some level he recognizes the truth of Ramsey’s critique. He eventually admits this, saying “I could have done better. I should have cooked the s**t I was going to cook.” All the while that we are churning out the same insipid stuff, we, too, realize that we are cowards for shunning the allure and danger of invention.

In taking over the food truck, Carl sides unequivocally with invention. It works out beautifully—the road trip at the end of the movie is pretty much all great food, upbeat music, and eager customers. In real life, we don’t always succeed when we take risks, and, even if the risk pays off, there is often a cost. Do we continue on at that point or turn back to the cramped confines of the safe harbor we left? In my life, I’ve mostly made the more risky choice, but at the time it was never an easy decision.

I recently wrote about our modern tendency to be overly busy, using as my jumping-off point reviews of Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. I noted in particular the self-importance that often underlies many overly packed schedules.

Busy busy busy. Illustration from The New Yorker.

Busy busy busy. Illustration from The New Yorker.

I subsequently read an article by Elizabeth Kolbert that provides a historical context for our busyness. She describes a 1928 essay by economist John Maynard Keynes titled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” Keynes expected that, in the century to follow, technological innovation would result in huge economic gains. Thus, by 2028, the standard of living would be so improved that no one would need to be concerned with obtaining necessities. He believed that the grandchildren alluded to by his title would work only about three hours a day, and even that amount would be more than was necessary. For Keynes, the problem facing future generations would be how to spend all the leisure time they would have. Keynes envisioned that the size of the global economy would increase seven-fold in the 100 years to come. We’re now 76 years into that century, and the U.S. gross domestic product has grown six-fold.

So, why was Keynes right about our increased prosperity but wrong about our leisure time? Economists have wondered the same thing. Kolbert describes the answers given by several of them in a book devoted to the topic (Revisiting Keynes, edited by Lorenzo Pecchi and Gustavo Piga, two Italian economists).

Frankly, none of the answers are convincing. Material consumption is habit-forming and people get accustomed to a certain level, thus they always want more, goes one answer. But the bump in happiness produced by purchases is highly transient. Shouldn’t we have figured out by now how little we benefit from pushing ourselves to be able to afford the next big thing? Society shapes our choices, and we don’t see beyond the habits we’ve been taught; so says another answer. Why would society shape our choices in the direction of ever-increasing busyness, though? The explanation seems circular—if we do something, society must have caused it, otherwise why would we be doing it?

The answer that seems most promising is that we work even though we don’t have to because work adds meaning to our lives. In a previous post making a similar point, I described the Christian notion that work is central to what it means to be human. In the Genesis account, God instructed the man and woman he created to work in the garden where he placed them. Work became more onerous after the fall, but remained central to human activity.

Does the importance of work for human identity mean we need to overwork ourselves to the point of exhaustion, though? The Biblical ideal is Practice Resurrectionnot constant work but a balance between work and rest. In Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson suggests that the call for humans to work has been distorted by the secularist, who romanticizes work. Peterson describes this view as follows:

“Work is romanticized when it is understood as a way to be significant, to become well known, to make a lot of money, to ‘make a contribution.’ Romanticized work tends to be glamorized work. Romanticized work relies heavily on payoffs, whether in salary and stock options, in recognition and prominence, or in ‘job satisfaction’ and ‘fulfilled potential.’” (p. 104)

In other words, romanticized work is about self-aggrandizement. The focus isn’t on meaning derived from doing good in the world. It’s on meaning in an individual sense, namely how good or smart or clever I prove myself to be. Overwork is appealing when every extra accomplishment enhances my positive feeling about myself. The temptation is to work assiduously on expanding my kingdom while neglecting God’s kingdom. That’s a strategy destined for failure!