Strapped to a chair in a small, grey house on the edge of a Missouri town, 52-year-old David Masters begged for his life to end by lethal injection instead of by gunshot. His three captors, angered that he was three weeks tardy with rent and that he’d made unwanted advances on one of them, obliged by injecting him repeatedly with cocaine. The next day, his body was found near an Ozark river. Another toll taken by the culture of addiction.

David Masters had been a lawyer. Hearing that, we imagine him in a small, cheap storefront office near city hall, a bottle hidden in the desk and no receptionist. Maybe an ambulance chaser. A lost soul hanging on to whatever profession he’d once had.

Here is what David Masters once had. Seven children. A wife. The best home in his Missouri town, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A reputation for hard work and scrupulous integrity. Proteges, who have since succeeded. The favor and support of the governor, who had appointed him county prosecutor in 1990 and which office he held until 1998.

David Masters had been a shining success. People marveled at how hard he worked, putting in full-time hours on a part-time job while still keeping his private practice. It appears his life unraveled shortly after he was unseated from his prosecutor’s slot in 1998. Under what seems to have been a crushing amount of personal and professional overhead, he ran out of money and options. Then, he plain ran out, moving without telling anyone, including 65 clients, where he was going. His law license was suspended. In the court documents, he at one point listed himself as “homeless.” That might well have been better than where he was, living in that small grey house with a killing drug dealer for a housemate.

He’d cracked. His ultimate end, one article says, was the result of “poor choices.” Running out on things, surrounding himself with hard characters, perhaps using drugs himself. That’s all strangely comforting to imagine — surely, we can avoid this man’s fate by instead making good choices. How else to make sense of such a bizarre and deep fall?

But, dig deeper, and there’s something else at work. Everyone who knew David Masters praised his integrity, his energy, his work ethic. Especially his work ethic. One person said he was “the hardest-working guy imaginable.” His integrity was unquestioned, but his industry was singular. His success, it seems, was built on that classic American myth of hard work and just a couple of good breaks.

How many of us imagine that same path to success, and indeed play it out at home? This is not someone else’s story. It’s our own. Hard work, that’s the ticket. And then, even harder work. David Masters began to drown under his own workload, neglecting his health, and finally broke down. Unlike the glittering profiles of success in the headlines, his story is the story of an ordinary man who follows an ordinary path. Hard work is available to us all; we need no special gifts in order to benefit from it. We can all swell with pride as we imagine ourselves out-hustling the competition and succeeding.

It’s made worse as people worry more and more about how they’ll make ends meet. Everyone, it seems, is working longer and harder hours than ever. Overall, families are working 11% more hours per year than thirty years ago. Work used to be a refuge of security. Work hard, went the deal, and things will be OK. Now, the deal has been welched on. Work hard, it now goes, and for your reward — you will work even harder.

This driven, hard-charging way to the top can turn around and bite. Staying late at the office, getting one more thing done before wearily heading home, it’s easy to congratulate ourselves on knowing when to quit. How balanced our lives are, because we only go back into the office for part of Saturday instead of the whole weekend. Why, the proof’s in David Masters himself: we don’t live in that grey house on Main Street just north of town.

Really, though, how far are we from that? How do we know where the line is? The answer is, we don’t. When we strive only for success, then success is the only positive outcome. All else is failure. And, when that success proves fleeting, the only answer is yet more desperate industry. All that anchors us and gives us balance is left by the curb.

David Masters, in his sad demise, may have told us a tale that will do us good. But we must hear it. It’s not a tale of drugs, or of bad choices, or of the need for a new economic policy. It’s a parable about hard work, and a reminder of the limits of effort. All of us must decide where we will draw the line. Desperate, David Masters crossed his.

Some of us seek diligence and more diligence. David Masters reminds us that we must seek to know when to rest, too.

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

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