Just an Average Joe

“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” ~ Joseph Campbell 

I never knew how to be the answer to life’s big questions until I met a guy named Tom…

I met Tom at a meeting when I took the job of coffee maker. He always showed up early and stayed late in order to sweep away the cigarette butts from the front door. 

I first guessed he was part of the custodial staff but then I saw him doing the same thing at other meetings and thought maybe he was just a little off — so I kept my distance.

Then, months later, at a speakers meeting a well dressed man walked up to the rostrum and announced, ”I’m Tom, I’m an alcoholic, and today I’m celebrating 25 years of sobriety.”

”Wow,” I thought, “This is the same guy who swept the grounds after meetings.”

And what a story he had to tell!

He had grown up in Oregon, had been a three sport all state athlete, valedictorian of his class and a Stanford grad with an MBA from the University of Chicago.

Tom said throughout his young life he heard he was special, someone gifted and unique and destined for greatness.

He bought that story, believed it with all his heart.

He went into business, earned a fortune trading securities, and made a big name for himself. People even wanted him to run for political office.

Then, he got greedy and began moving money around to create even more wealth for himself, always at the expense of his clients. The more money he made the more he wanted, and he stole ever more from his clients’ accounts.

Soon his shenanigans caught up with him. He was arrested and it all came tumbling down.

  • charged with fraud by the Feds
  • sued by his clients
  • tried and convicted
  • sentenced to prison 

He said his “giftedness, specialness and uniqueness” had finally done him in.


And then something strange happened: he found his freedom in prison.

He learned that to be seen as special and unique put a target on his back. The only thing unique about a prisoner was their number.

So he quickly became nobody special.

The more he practiced being an ordinary guy, the more honest he became, so much so that one day he looked in the mirror and saw the face of just an “average Joe,” instead of a guy with an outsized ego and an undersized conscience. And to that he said, “YES!”

That revelation changed his life.

Miraculously, his bottomless desire to appear 

  • better
  • richer
  • more powerful

evaporated and allowed him to permanently unwind from the need to feel terminally unique.

Tom felt as if he’d been born again.

You’ve heard of someone who worked their way UP the latter to find success? Well, Tom worked his way DOWN that latter to find his success.

Then, he said, a strange thing happened. His feelings of loneliness and isolation dissolved like a cube of sugar in a cup of tea.

He came to see he really wasn’t any more or any less than the next guy, just another “average Joe” trying to navigate his way through life.

  • his remorse over his past was no more or less remorseful than anyone else,
  • his hopes for the future were no more or less vital,
  • his need for the grace of God no more or less eternal.

Most of all, he discovered his best self was his average Joe self.

So after he was paroled he was assigned community service. He took on the job of janitor in a halfway house. He traveled with a broom and became a top notch sweeper. He kept that broom in hand long after he satisfied his legal obligations.

David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character, suggests that true character is claimed not through asking “What do I want from life?” but rather “What does life want from me?” What are my circumstances calling me to do? In this scheme of things we don’t create our life, we are summoned by life.

Tom learned the meaning of his life at the end of a broom stick.


Just a thought…


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