Archive for November, 2009

The true cost of rush hour

Posted: November 19, 2009 in Philosophy, Society

The true cost of rush hour is more than an overpriced train fare – it’s our humanity.

The thing that people lament most about working life is the loss of time. Time to pursue your passions and interests, time to spend with your family, and time to act. When I say ‘time to act’ I mean specifically the time to act on your gut feelings and instincts – feelings such as empathy. I focus on this because I have experienced it recently.

On an average weekday a working person’s experience of the world is limited to the journey to work, the lunch hour (if it is taken), and the journey from work. The journey to work is dominated by the fear of being late, while the journey home is dominated by the desire to relax and unwind after a hard day. Both of these – the fear and the desire – become excuses we use to console ourselves for not acting on our gut feelings of compassion.

Recently, for example, I finished work just before five – which is early for many, I know! Tired, I walked hurriedly to the bus station to catch the 5pm bus home. On the way I saw a wounded pigeon sitting helplessly on the pavement. I immediately felt something in my stomach which I believe was empathy. I stopped and wondered about the pigeon’s fate, but the draw of home was too powerful. The clock was ticking. I would have to wait an extra forty minutes if I missed the 5 o’clock bus. I hesitated, and walked on. I made my way home feeling guilty, reassuring myself that I could not have done anything because I didn’t have the time.

A friend of mine recently told me about how the Japanese philosopher Motoori Norinaga believed in something called jyou . Jyou is based on an idea by the Chinese philosopher Wang Yangming that all humans have an innate knowledge of the difference between good and evil which is “intuitive and not rational”. Jyou is the feeling which accompanies that innate knowledge. It is the gut instinct to act on a situation, such as that of the wounded pigeon, which creates feelings of empathy and compassion.

Working life creates conditions which stifle and suppress our jyou. Watch big city commuters walk past a beggar or a Big Issue vendor, and you will see this to be true to the majority of working people. In our hectic, work-obsessed lives we do not have the time to act on empathy and so we repress the desire to act until eventually we have repressed the feeling of compassion altogether.

If we reclaim the time to act we will reclaim a sense of right and wrong action which is innate in us. If we all try reclaiming some time today, there is a chance we will feel the jyou inside us next time we walk past a creature in need of help.


Photo credit: Dr Karanka


Workingman’s holiday blues

Posted: November 16, 2009 in Society

Christmas at McDonalds

One of the cruelest developments in the working world over the past thirty years is the inclusion of traditional holidays – such as Boxing Day and New Year’s Day – into the working year. Most middle class professionals aren’t affected by this, and probably do not realise the extent to which working people oppose and resent the encroachment of work into their traditional days of rest.

When the manager at Domino’s Pizza – where I currently work part-time – told everyone which days they must work over the Christmas period, there was a collective groan from the staff. I was told I would be working from 5pm until 9pm on Christmas Eve, and the same on Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Others would have to work until 11pm. One girl was surprised that Domino’s had extended their closing time on Christmas Eve from 9pm (last year) until 11pm. Another worker – who being 16 earns a meagerly £3.57 per hour – said how he had hoped to visit his father over Christmas, as he rarely has time to do so.

If this society continues on its present course I am certain that in 20 years time it will be normal for shops and fast-food outlets to be open on Christmas Day. Something unthinkable as little as thirty years ago. How things have changed from earlier periods in England’s history, when festivals were treated with deep respect and when holidays were just that – holy days.

During the middle ages the Christmas festivities lasted a full twelve days, during which people engaged in great feasting and merrymaking. It wasn’t just Christmas which provided days of celebration though. The whole year was full of days which people were obliged to take off work – Saints days, Easter etc.

In Medieval England, it wasn’t the goal of material prosperity or ‘progress’ which governed the economy of the country, it was God. Medieval accounting books began with the words “For God and for profit”. As David Boyle points out in his excellent essay, Economic Thought in the Middle Ages (published in The Idler #42), this doesn’t mean that business didn’t exist during that period. On the contrary, it boomed all across Europe. The Hanseatic League is evidence of that. The difference between then and now is that the rules which governed business in Medieval Europe were religious rules, based on cooperation and fairness (see Aquinas’s idea of a just price). They were rules designed to benefit everyone, to reflect Christ’s teachings and ultimately, to glorify God.

The change in thinking since then has been radical. Competition has replaced cooperation, and ‘growth’ has replaced God. Work has come to dominate. Many people will be lucky to get more than three days off work this Christmas. The economy struggles to give us any time off at all, and when a holiday is forced upon us – as with the great snow day earlier this year – economists bemoan the loss of money it causes. In playing Malvolio to our Toby Belch, they seek in earnest to take away our cakes and ale. Unlike Malvolio however, they are succeeding.

Photo credit: financeguy 高志傑