Surely, any consolation is better than none . . . or, is it? What good is false consolation: smoothing over a jagged situation, say, to avoid facing a painful or unpleasant reality?
I caught myself mid-sentence as the thought, barely formed, floated across my mind, ‘At least . . .’ it began. I was passing a team of road-workers and, directing traffic a large, young, uniformed man with sandy-coloured dyed hair guided me safely around the site. It was hardly necessary. I was on only two wheels and the narrowness of the road made it necessary to travel at modest speed in any event. His actual duty did not affect my passage at all. His gentle, tanned and smiling face made all the difference, however, to my day. Our wordless encounter left me with a gladdened heart, feeling uplifted.
Years ago, on another longer term building site, I used to watch the weather-beaten face of the elderly man wearing a dark construction company uniform, replete with reflective layers, a white hard hat and sturdy looking safety boots. In every sort of weather, come rain, come shine, come bitter cold and crippling heat, there he’d stand, fully covered, waiting to direct people and vehicles safely into or around the site. His duty, above all, was the maintenance of harmony: harmony with the neighborhood & harmony with the company and those passing by.
“Harmony maintenance worker” has a nice ring to it. (In this neck of the woods, this is something, for better or worse, expected of us all.) What could I learn from this man? Often he seemed to me utterly vacant. I wondered about him. Was he, perhaps, well-suited to low-stimulus work? Or was he, contrary to appearance, free to work on another, invisible level at something completely life-changing and possibly mind-blowing? Could he have been a ‘post-work’ being, in fact, having reached some kind of enlightenment after hours of serious, secret engagement in practice? (I admit I am rather fond of this little fantasy: the construction site worker as boddhisatva.) Pico Iyer notes in an interesting essay on the Japanese sense of self, that
. . . losing your smaller mind, certain Zen teachers will tell you, is the best way to lose your self. Or at least that divisive, analytical fixed self that sits outside of things and chops them up, as opposed to the fluid one that finds its identity in getting submerged within a larger stream. As the late German-born Zen teacher Toni Packer had it, “Ego, in its most general terms, is resistance to what is.”
Have you ever noticed how the phrase ‘at least’ is a mask of sorts, one that jollies us along, whistling in the dark? How it keeps us protected from that glimpse into the abyss? The English language hardly does better with ‘at best’ – that phrase likewise has a cloud of misery about it, ‘a result, condition, etc., that is the best one possible even though it is not very good.’
My ‘at least’ around the road works got me thinking about the precariousness of working life these days. How would one distinguish in many jobs what it is to be employed or enslaved? (‘At least you have work,’
the reasoning might go my reasoning went – an attempt, some might say, of introducing a positive element to a glum situation.) But, as reasoning goes, this line of thought is completely without nobility.
This week I’ve been dipping into the World Happiness Report for 2016. I was drawn there by this article which concludes that the position of your country’s economy on the world stage has little to do with your sense of possibility, fulfillment & wellbeing.
In a country famed for its workaholism (living to work), more than 40% of Japan’s work force is irregularly employed (having trouble working to live). And yet, if this rather rightward leaning article is to be trusted (I had one eyebrow skeptically raised through much of it, as reassuring as much of it sounded), Japanese solidarity will ensure the future. The thing is, inequality everywhere is on the rise. This place is no exception. The old ‘work hard & ‘all these things will be added unto you’ cliché has had its day. A new day has dawned; a new way is calling us on.
Lately I’ve come across a few books that shed light on the hard subject of job/financial security:
- Tom Gill – Men of Uncertainty (a research piece on day-laborers in Japan)
- Anne Allison – Precarious Japan
- Guy Standing – The Precariat
- Neal Gabler – “The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans“
I’m paying attention to my use of ‘at least’ these days in the hopes that I might find a more generous, just, warm-hearted and open way of responding to the world around me.