“I don’t say he’s a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being… so attention must be paid. He’s not allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.” –Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
I love the new CBS television show “Undercover Boss.” I have only watched a handful of the episodes that have aired, but there is something so moving about the show. Leaders of vast businesses disguise themselves, which is somewhat unnecessary, and perform everyday duties at different levels in their company. The show presumes that, while learning how to improve productivity and profits, they see what life is like for those they employ. Almost every show follows this format: boss “slums” it by not shaving and changing their name. They presume that they know how to do the work and laugh at bit when they are not as adept as they thought. Then they get sore. They see just how demanding the work their employees perform is and they see how little praise and recognition they get. They hear the stories of those who work hard to eek out a life, then they reveal themselves as changed people. Each boss does something huge and personal for the people they met and grew to love and something small to change the company based on their experience.
Despite my love for the show, I recommend it to everyone with one caveat: I don’t think it’s fair that they only help the handful of people they met. It’s nice and touching, but for the rest of the nameless cogs in the company, it does nothing. That is, until I watched the show tonight.
Here I digress: this week I sent in my first census. I have been counted under my parents’ household twice before, but this was the first time I sent one of my own in. The commercials on television tout the importance of being counted and the implications that the census has on our lives, but it really was a remarkable experience. I was somewhat disappointed by how simple and superficial the questions were: name, age, sex, race. There was nothing to it. Still, for some reason, I felt something exciting, something big when I filled it out and mailed it in. I count. I am on record. I am important enough to take note of. And I wasn’t a number. Since high school I have been a number. Well, I guess, since the day I was born, Social Security has seen me as a number. I was a four-digit high school number, seven-digit college number and now a seven-digit work number. All of this and yet, to the US Government, I am me. There is something so personal about the clinical, standardized form.
That digression leads to me being a little more forgiving of “Undercover Boss.” Yes, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of employees who get nothing out of the show. Tonight, the boss gave one man $10,000 to help pay for his wedding. The part of me that is wired to want things to be fair dies a little bit. Then there is the part of me that just mailed in her census. That man, his story, his life touched his boss. He became a part of his CEO’s story. And he, in turn, became a part of his employee’s story. It is intensely personal. I fell into the same trap that I’m caught in everyday: a business isn’t a massive group, it’s individuals. Yes, there are many, many others who will never benefit from this new perspective the CEO gained. Then there are some, people with names and stories and families, that are effected for that precise reason: they are people with lives and hearts.
This is the essence of why the show works. People matter. The work they do matters. When the CEO of 7-11 went and made coffee, he saw how huge the job is. He understood that sitting in the corporate boardroom does not keep the company running any more than the hourly associates who change coffee filters. Working for a large retail company, I may be more moved by the show than others because I am on the nameless end of the deal. I have managers that are in my store weekly who do not know my name. I do not know who my CEO is any more than they know me. To walk into our store, they wouldn’t need a disguise. They may as well operate a million miles away from us. There is such a huge disconnect, such an ugly separation from them and us.
I’m sure that Karl Marx would have plenty to say about my alienation and discontent. One a more personal level, beyond production and goods, so much of what we crave is to be known, to be noticed. We want to be more than a number, to be a person. A person is more than a name, it’s a whole being– all our joys and fears, our needs and gifts. We want to count. Jesus assured His followers of the importance they held, that their lives mattered to God. They would be risking their lives, but there would be providence. He reminded them that, “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Luke 12:7). We want to know that someone notices us, the big and the small things. Sure, I want my boss to know my name. I also want my friends to know that my eyes are hazel, not brown. We want to matter enough for someone to pay attention. The idea that something as insignificant and ever-changing as the number of our hairs is noticed is humbling and comforting in a world where I rarely feel noticed. One of the most quoted, most beautiful Psalms has the writer proclaiming “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalms 139:13). Our Creator knows us that intimately, that closely. He has known us forever. While this is incredibly moving and beautiful, we still want others to see us too. I still want people to see me. It’s nice to think that in a country that stretches out over more than 3 million square miles, I mean something. In fact, I mean just as much as any star in Hollywood or politician on Capitol Hill. I am important enough to count.
“You’re waiting tables and parking cars/ You’ve been selling cell phones at the shopping mall/ And you began to believe that all you are is material/ It’s nonsensical…” –Switchfoot, “4:12”