The president of the United States had just been impeached, the economy was booming, and Greg, all 39 years of him, had only ever missed two days at work: once because he had received a court subpoena, the second time because he woke up with a medical emergency. As America braced for Y2K, Greg earned $26 an hour as an operating engineer for an asphalt paving company, a wage that, after adjusting for inflation, is the equivalent of about $40 an hour today.
A member of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Greg’s job was golden: plenty of overtime ($39 an hour) with a minimum of 60 hours a week doing work he loved and with generous health benefits. In those days, Greg never cashed his checks until the end of the month. With three side jobs—a thriving weekend DJ business, a concrete company and pressure-washing business, and flipping houses—he didn’t need to.
“Get Hamburger on the job,” his bosses would say about Greg when they had an especially tough assignment. He had a wife and three children at home, a Harley on the road, Cincinnati Bengals tickets on the weekends, and loads of dignity.
But everything changed on a job in Ohio in July 1999, when Greg stepped off his roller to redirect an angry driver who was trying to get home from work.
“Sir, this road is closed,” Greg told him, sidling up to the driver’s side door. “You’ll have to turn around and go the other way.”
The driver ignored Greg and raced ahead, his Ford F150 violently hurling Greg to the pavement and his rear tires rumbling over Greg’s legs.
The doctors released Greg from the hospital that night with no broken bones, but with plenty of pain medicine for the excruciating pain that he suffered from deep contusions. Within a couple weeks, he was allowed to return to work—they stuck him on a job handling paperwork—but it quickly became clear that his days were numbered. When Greg filed for workmen’s compensation, his employer fought him mercilessly in court—and won. (The company’s attorneys argued he wasn’t actually doing his job when he stepped off the roller and redirected the driver.)
One day, before the company laid all employees off for winter, his supervisor told him, “Hamburger, you’d better look for a job this winter. They’re not gonna call you back in the spring.” The supervisor explained that it’s just how the company handled employees who had been injured. Sure enough, the following April, Greg waited expectantly for the phone call that never came.
Greg kept looking for work through his union, but no one seemed to want to hire him. Meanwhile, his body deteriorated. Without workmen’s compensation or health insurance, he delayed surgeries he should’ve had immediately, and his body progressively broke down. Eventually, he declared bankruptcy. That’s when his wife filed for divorce papers and found a new boyfriend.
Devastated, Greg became suicidal and angry: angry at his ex-wife, her boyfriend, his ex-employer, and the angry man who'd run him over and ruined his life. “That put me in a deep, dark depression,” he recounted. He even plotted his revenge, adding: “I was sick of the world.”
But Greg hung onto a thin hope: his youngest daughter, for whom he was in the midst of a custody battle. During that battle, a pastor told Greg to “give things to God,” a message that stuck with him. Later, he started attending services at an old VFW-bar-turned-church.
On Palm Sunday and baby dedication day, the pastor preached on Hannah from the Old Testament: she was barren but promised that if God granted her a baby, she would consecrate him to God. “When the preacher said that, it hit me,” Greg said. “That’s what I gotta do. I wept and told God, ‘You give me my baby and I’ll give her back to you.’” The next time in court, he unexpectedly won full custody of his baby girl—and the next baby dedication in church, he dedicated his daughter to God.
But during the years that followed, his love life did not improve. One day, a woman he had met only months before leaned over in church to whisper, “Let’s get married today,” and they did. But within months, she left him. His fourth wife, a registered nurse, announced as he was administered anesthesia for his third back surgery, “When you wake up this time, you’ll be divorced.” She wasn’t kidding; when he was released from the hospital, she left him stumbling in a storm of sleet outside his home as she high-tailed it for another state with another man. His fifth wife also left him.
“I’ve never gotten the loyalty I’ve given,” Greg says about his marriages. He prides himself on loyalty. “I’m loyal to my employers. I’m loyal to my wife. I’m loyal to my friends.”
It’s possible that white, working-class people like Greg will continue driving an alarming rate of deaths of despair in America. But there are plenty of reasons from Greg’s own story to believe that something more redeeming will become the plot of the final decades of his life.
Greg and I became friends through Better Angels, the nonprofit I helped to co-found in the aftermath of 2016. More than 20 years after the injury that altered his life, Greg, now 60, jeers the news about the impeachment of his beloved President Trump, cheers the news about the roaring stock market and low unemployment, but is himself out of the workforce—and unmarried. He is a working man now disabled and tossed aside by employers—a pro-family voter alienated from marriage. Greg credits God for taking away the anger that used to debilitate him, though he still struggles with anger towards himself: frustrated that he has no income to lavish upon his grandkids at Christmas time, and tired of being broke.
“Do not try to tell me how stupid I am,” Greg told me, with a fire in his voice that can only come from someone who knows the gifts within, but who has been deemed stupid by everyone from bill collectors to ex-bosses to presidential candidates.
Still, he clings to hope—hope from his grandkids, his faith, and even the current president. “Donald Trump gives me a lot of hope,” he said. “I love his policies. I love his love for this country…”
Greg is still very involved in the life of his local church, is close to his pastor, and is strengthened by the people he knows there. But some days, he feels too ashamed to walk in the doors. On those days, he told me, shame masquerades as anger and toughness. But it’s not: it’s the cry of the man wondering if he is capable and if he is good enough. “I find it easier to forgive others than myself,” Greg told me.
For the shame-under-guise-of-anger, the urgent response is surely not demonization but rather unconditional solidarity that communicates grace, awakens dignity, and impels reconciliation. It’s possible that white, working-class people like Greg will continue driving an alarming rate of deaths of despair in America. But there are plenty of reasons from Greg’s own story to believe that something more redeeming will become the plot of the final decades of his life.
I thought about this after Greg told me about the “journey of forgiveness” he has been traveling, a journey that began when a preacher challenged listeners to ask for forgiveness even when it wasn’t obvious that they had done anything wrong. That got Greg thinking about the angry man who barreled over his legs. So Greg set out to find him, traveling a couple of hours to his rural Ohio home to knock on his door. Greg introduced himself to the man, now 85, and asked him to forgive him for anything that he might have done to make him angry that July day. The man accepted his apology, and Greg snapped a photo of the two.
On the 20th anniversary of his injury, Greg posted that photo on Facebook, a smile on his face and a quizzical look on the other man’s. He wrote:
20 years later, over a dozen surgeries, lots of sermons, prayers, and accepting Jesus as my personal Savior, I've forgiven him and made friends. I'm not able to play on his senior’s volleyball team, but I told him I'd come and cheer for him.
Americans like Greg have complementary gifts to offer their fellow citizens—gifts forged by suffering and a deep awareness of their dependence upon God and others, and a surprising humility and openness born from being lost and found. To be more fully herself, the American body politic needs those men and women.