In case you missed the news a couple of weeks ago, Geoffrey Owens, the actor who played Elvin Tibideaux on The Cosby Show back in the ’80s and ’90s, was photographed while working as a cashier at a Trader Joe’s in Clifton, N.J. The photo was accompanied by unflattering articles on the Fox News website and the U.K.’s Daily Mail.
So, 26 years after one TV job, this guy looks differently (shock) and is earning an honest living at a Trader Joe’s. The people taking his picture and passing judgment are trash. https://t.co/OUbOORk6jW
— Justine Bateman (@JustineBateman) September 1, 2018
I was heartened by the reaction to these articles: Many prominent people, including fellow ’80s TV star Justine Bateman in the tweet above (who asked his permission to re-post the grocery store photo), rose to Owens’s defense, accusing the photographer, the news media, and online gawkers everywhere of “job shaming.” The controversy even led to two new TV gigs for Owens: on a Tyler Perry-produced show and on N.C.I.S.
In a New York Times interview today, Owens was asked what advice he had for other struggling “non A-list” actors: “My advice is get a job at Trader Joe’s and have someone take your picture without you knowing it.”
I’m glad he can laugh about it! All’s well that ends well.
Now allow me to get down off my moral high horse: I was one of those online gawkers. First, for some reason, I was surprised by the change in his appearance. As a first-generation viewer of the Cosby Show, shouldn’t “Elvin” remain that 20-something nebbish who married the stronger, more confident Sondra—as if—surprise, surprise—middle age doesn’t happen to all of us? Deeply unfair on my part, I know! Then I felt pity: “How the mighty have fallen! After all, he was on a number-one TV show for years, back when that meant something—back before the prime-time audience splintered into a thousand different pieces.
Worst of all—who am I kidding?—I felt a sense of relief: “While I’ve never been famous, I’ve never made a lot of money, and I’ve never been nearly as successful in my respective career(s) as he has been in his, at least I’m not a cashier at Trader Joe’s! Here’s one more person to whom I can feel superior, at least for the moment.”
But for now, I want to say a word about my second emotion: pity. Why did this photo evoke that emotion within me?
Because I secretly believe, all evidence to the contrary, that assets like fame, popularity, career success, awards, good looks, money—all of which he surely possessed even as a supporting actor on the number-one sitcom in America—are life’s greatest treasures. Therefore, when I see him today, I see a man who lost everything.
How could I not feel sorry for him? How tragic!
But instead of feeling sorry for him, why not feel sorry for myself? Because my reaction to the image of the present-day Geoffrey Owens proves that I don’t believe the gospel of Jesus Christ the way I should.
After all, hasn’t Jesus warned me not to lay up treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-24)? Hasn’t he warned me to be “rich toward God” rather than rich in possessions (Luke 12:21)? Hasn’t he told me that my greatest treasure by far is found in him (Matthew 13:44-46), and, indeed, that he doesn’t tolerate even a close second in anyone or anything else (Luke 14:26)?
Yet I keep looking for my treasure outside of him. Why?
In my quiet times recently, I’ve been Bible-journaling my way through the minor prophets. I’m on Habakkuk. Just yesterday, I read the following from chapter 2:9, which, in context, is directed to the king of Babylon:
“Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm!”
How vain the king was to “set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm,” as if it’s safe from the reach of God himself!
Yet am I so different? While I won’t bother telling you what’s inside my particular nest, suffice it to say that I have one, and when it’s empty, I feel angry, insecure, and unsatisfied. Why? Is Jesus not enough for me?
Unless or until he is, I’ll never be as happy in life as I want to be.
C.S. Lewis described my condition well in his book The Problem of Pain:
As St. Augustine says somewhere, ‘God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full—there’s nowhere for Him to put it.’ Or as a friend of mine said, ‘We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.’ Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call ‘our own life’ remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make ‘our own life’ less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible source of false happiness?
Does God love love me enough to want me to be truly happy? Then I shouldn’t be surprised when he plunders the “nest” I refer to above—when he takes away every “plausible source of false happiness.” Have your way, Lord! “Let me be full; let me empty. Let me have all things; let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.”
Consider the apostle Paul. He doesn’t say, in Philippians 3:8, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord and doing the apostolic work to which he’s called me.” He counts everything as loss—even his work—in comparison to knowing Christ!
This convicts me. Because I want Jesus and… This “and” makes me miserable.
So I don’t know anything about Geoffrey Owens. But based on the evidence in the photo above, I have absolutely zero reasons to feel sorry for him. For all I know, he has Jesus (and he certainly has the opportunity to have Jesus), in which case he has a treasure far better than fame, popularity, career success, awards, good looks, and money.
God, out of your great love for me, do what’s necessary to make me believe it.
1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 94.