A comic strip that reproduces a 1990 speech by Bill Watterson, author of the rightfully popular Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, has been making the rounds over the last few days. I’ve seen it shared enthusiastically by Christians on several social media sites, which I can understand. On one level, it can be read as a clear critique of how our society defines “success” and the many ways we can get trapped by that vision, drawn into its soul-destroying way of life. The cartoon is worth reading for that warning alone. (Even though I’m going to critique the cartoon a bit later, please don’t let that keep you from reading it. It’s really worthwhile.)
But the cartoon carries subtler messages as well, ones that warrant more careful consideration.
I think the cartoon actually serves as an excellent example of how we receive messages from our culture every day, ideas that unconsciously shape how we view much of life. And, like many of the messages our culture sends, these can have destructive consequences.
So I think it’s worth taking a few minutes and using this as a case study in analyzing subtle signals. The cartoon is fairly long, and it would be pretty distracting to post all of it before I make my comments. So instead I’m going to mix some excerpts in with my comments and post the entire cartoon below. If you haven’t read it yet–and you should–you may want to skip to the end and then (hopefully) come back for my reflections.
Let’s start with the good.
Success vs. Significance
The overt message of the cartoon is that we can’t get trapped by the world’s definition of success: a definition dominated by power, prestige, and money. Instead, Watterson advises that we should live lives that reflect our values. And since there’s very little about the world’s definition of success that reflects distinctively Christian values, Watterson’s advice is wise council.
If that’s all the cartoon had to say, I’d stop and encourage everyone to read it. But the strip contains a few other messages we should hear.
Fear the Cubicle
The cartoon centers around a man who obviously finds his marketing work unsatisfying. So he throws it off to stay at home, take care of his kids, and draw cartoons. The overt message is a good one: find work that fits your values. But a subtler message suggests itself: that kind of work is soul-killing.
Watterson probably didn’t intend this comic as an implicit criticism of people who create advertisements for car companies, along with all those other people who sold their souls to the corporate overlords, but it’s hard not to see that lurking between the lines.
And that’s a message we hear every day, from Office Space and Dilbert–both of which, by the way, I think are hilarious–to casual jokes about anyone who works in a cubicle. We live in a world that decries the 8-to-5 job, even while it inconsistently desires the consumerist lifestyle that such jobs support.
The truth, though, is that every job can be an expression of our vocation: image bearers, those who manifest God’s glory in a broken world. It’s not our work that defines us but we who define our work. Or, even better, it’s God who defines our vocation which then gives meaning to our work, whatever that might be. (For more on this see, “A Job That Matters: Taking the Image of God to Work.” A cubicle is only soul-killing if we’ve forgotten our true calling.
Be True to Yourself
I’m torn on this one. From one angle Watterson’s cartoon calls people to live out of their giftedness: who you are, the unique way that God has designed you. And to that I only want to hear a hearty “Amen!” That’s not just being true to yourself but to the God who made you.
But the flipside comes when Watterson claims that we should be satisfied with who we are. Reject the negativity of anyone who suggests otherwise and embrace the unique you-ness of you. Once again, I don’t know that Watterson intended this to come across in the cartoon, but it’s clearly there.
I hesitate even to criticize this theme because I know how often we hear the opposite, and equally broken, theme–one that only tells us how broken, fallen, and miserable we are. Many of us need to hear a more positive message, the true story of our uniqueness and significance.
But we can swing the pendulum too far in our desire to avoid that equally dangerous mistake. The simple truth is that I am broken and fallen. I do use my gifts in ways that further sinful agendas more than they manifest God’s amazing glory. Quite simply, I can’t be satisfied with who I am.
As with many things, we need to hold two truths in tension here: I am both uniquely special and fundamentally broken. Unfortunately, our culture continues to send subtle signals that only the former is truly true.
Create Your Own Meaning
The last theme comes out most clearly toward the end when Watterson hits the real punch-line of the piece.
As attractive as that sounds, it’s wrong. We do not invent our life’s meaning. Insofar as our lives have any meaning at all, it’s a gift.
A statement like that is a fairly clear expression of a deep (western) cultural value: we create ourselves as free individuals. From this perspective, the cartoon isn’t so much a critique of success as a call for free individuals to throw off the shackles of society and find their own way in life. Don’t let anyone tell you who you should be and what you should do. That’s slave thinking. Be free. Affirm life, affirm yourself, be who you are.
The problem is that there is more of Nietzsche in that paragraph than Christ. We already have purpose, identity, and meaning. We are not autonomous individuals free to pursue whatever vision most appeals to us. We are servants. We have purpose, but it’s one that we’ve received.
Again, and I don’t think I can repeat it too much, we are image bearers, called to manifest God’s glory in his creation for the well-being of all. And that is a gift: the gift of purpose.
Having said all that, I still like the cartoon…if we tweak the ending just a bit. We do need to beware the constant pressure to pursue “success” as defined by our culture. We should resist those expectations and freely pursue our vocation as image-bearers wherever God has called us and however he has gifted us. If that means drawing cartoons at home while hanging out with your kids, outstanding! If it involves in an office creating advertisements for a car company, terrific! Both of those are contexts in which God can manifest his glory through you.
Being true to your calling is being true to yourself.