Are you making a living?

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I’ve just been reading a book about how we make sense of the world according to the stories accepted in society. Interesting stuff, but it was as I turned the page and was confronted by a new chapter heading that I found myself whisked off back nearly fifty years to a long buried adolescent memory of discomfort and an unexpected glimpse of a story which may be undermining our ability to live sustainably.

The chapter heading read “Making a living” and immediately I thought of my dad as these were the words he used to use to describe what he did. The more I reflected on this description it occurred to me this phrase is not so common today. Nowadays people seem more likely to talk of how they make money. Time is now money and it can’t be wasted because it represents monetary value. Yet somehow we know time is more than money. Karma Tshiteem, Bhutan’s head of Gross National Happiness Commission says……. “Time is life”.

Well of course he’s right. There is nothing more precious to us than the time we are alive. It could be said life is synonymous with time and that’s why we talk of our existence as our ‘lifetime’. We each get a quota of time, our time bank which is our most precious possession. We do not know how much is in the bank, we never get statements from the time bank, but we do know that every day that passes we are using up our most precious resource, our time alive.

So why have we created a society where everything seems to be defined in monetary terms and we are so driven to use up our time to make money? Pondering that question brought up a fleeting memory of being with my dear dad that seemed to offer an insight. I realised my dad really did make a living through his work. As long as he could pay the bills and support his family he never thought to build up surplus money. He built up his window cleaning round in the local high street and enjoyed meeting and chatting to the people in the shops and houses whose windows he tended. It’s not to say life wasn’t tough in South London cleaning windows in the pre-dawn darkness of winter days. During school holidays when I was called on to help I can still well remember that feeling of deep seated nausea as I plunged my hands into frigid water to prewash the big shop windows. Or perhaps it was more the indigestible sense of embarrassment that I might be seen and associated with the skulking shadowy figures moving around South London before 5am. But then as the morning unveiled itself and the shopkeepers arrived people would make us cups of tea and the merriment of chatter and laughter filled the air. As I watched the care my father displayed for his friends (the word customers never arose) I found my chill and revulsion being swept aside by a warm satisfaction and pride at the respect in which he was held.

When dad retired he did not sell his window cleaning round as many advised him. No, his way was to find a couple of young men who were starting out and who he thought were good people. He took them around to introduce them to his customers and simply gave them his business. Dad brought up our family in a council flat and contributed to the social security system all his working life. He knew he could rely on the state to pay him a retirement pension as that was the ‘story’ accepted by society then. Dad was never greatly interested in money and certainly would not entertain the notion of taking out a loan to buy a house and owing money. No, he was truly focussed on making a living not making money. He knew time was life and he made the most of it building and enjoying friendships. That’s why dad became one of the best loved men in that South London suburb and set an example which I am only now really beginning to understand.

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