In America we are what we do. Our work defines us.
So what does it mean to be a farmer? What does it mean to be a nurse, a schoolteacher, a machinist? What does it mean to be a football player or a football coach?
You take the job and you take your chances.
On the sad, unsurprising news this morning of Robert Griffin III's knee surgery, we're reminded of the truth that football players will do what football players do. And that football coaches behave as football coaches. As do football's owners and football's writers.
We adopt the code and the culture of the work we do. Become an accountant and one day you'll think as an accountant. Become a software engineer and you'll speak as a software engineer. Become a quarterback and you'll see the world through a quarterback's eyes, and find solutions to its troubles only in running and jumping and throwing. All in the name of the work.
What risks do we take? What limits do we set? What sacrifices do we make for ourselves and our families? For glory or for vanity? For money? There are more questions than answers when it comes to what our work means.
There are plenty of jobs more dangerous than quarterback. And which pay 1/100th as much. Lumberjack, fisherman, coal miner, pilot, firefighter. And yet we almost never question the common sense of the men and women who go into the forests and the fields to earn their livings, who go to sea or run toward burning buildings. Rather, we honor them without much asking the price of their choices.
But what's the true cost and the moral calculus of a job? Why should we feel any worse for RG III than we do for any house painter fallen from a ladder or foundry worker burned? As a consumer of food or electricity or entertainment, do I have a reciprocal moral responsibility to every farmer, every miner, every athlete?
It sure seemed so last Sunday.
When that knee buckled we shivered from coast to coast, and by midnight Mike Shanahan was cast as the ruthless shift manager in Dan Snyder's slaughterhouse. RG III was just another slip-and-fall injury on the killing floor.
Or maybe RG III was the ungovernable artist and Shanahan the good-natured bureaucrat ruined by him. Or was Shanahan tied to the railroad tracks and RG III the doomed matinee idol sent to save him? There were lots of ways to tell it, because writers behave as writers.
But each did only as the cult of football demands of them. Professional athletes accept physical risk just as roofers and house painters do, the bad turf and the broken ladder all numbers on the same big roulette wheel. We do what we can to hedge those bets, every one of us, all the way up and down the chain. Barry Bonds did the things a baseball player does. Lance Armstrong did what bicycle racers do. As do actors and window washers and surgeons and opera singers.
That short order cook at the Ukrainian coffee shop on the corner, too. Perfect in himself and perfect in his work. You've seen him. Or one like him. Not an action wasted or a gesture wrongly spent. He cooks fast and well. Expressionless, his ambitions are a mystery. His dreams and his motives and his means are his own. This is true for us all. To the extent we're trapped in our own skulls while doing it, all work is done in solitude, all work is an act of imagination. All work is shaped by our preconceptions of that work.
So even football isn't just about winning. It's about conforming to the cult and culture of football. You run the option on the busted knee. Or you keep the hobbled quarterback in the game - because we've decided that football is meant to reveal character.
It may even be true. The only greater mistake might be to think it was about money. But the money doesn't matter. The money doesn't define you or define the work or offer the promise of love or hope or passion or understanding. The money imprisons you, the money sets you free, the money is both luxury and hunger, the money is the money and the contradiction of the money.
The money is only the money. Even by taking work you hate in order to feed your family - isn't that work really about your love of your family?
In this way maybe work connects every one of us, the next to the next to the next, the lyric tenor to the football star to the postal worker. So we're back to this, back to what work is, back to the old poems and the old poets. Even what working is not must be defined by what Working is.
You take the job, then the job takes you.
I am a farmer I am a lumberjack I am a fisherman I am a soldier I am a miner I am a cook I am a football player. I am a laborer and a boss and a machinist and a painter and a banker and a priest. I am a coach and an old poet. I am a quarterback. And I am an American.