I’ve been thinking a lot recently about work-life balance, which is typically defined as the balance between how much time you spend working and how much time you spend doing other things in life. Yet isn’t most of what we do outside of our day jobs still class as some sort of ‘work’, whether that’s gardening (which I hate), or writing (which I love), or cleaning before guests come over (that’s not too bad). The reality is we are working all the time, it’s just whether the ‘work’ is leisurely or not. And actually ‘work’ by definition is just part of life. Our day jobs feel harder work because it can be stressful and often comes with pressure and often becomes so over-consuming that the ‘life’ element of the working balance becomes redundant.
I was chatting with a friend down in London the other month and we were talking about working for the kind of lifestyle you want. However, to work for that lifestyle, you end up working all the time and never having the chance to live the lifestyle you’re working for. It feels a bit pointless when you put it like that. Yet, if we’re just working for the lifestyle we want, are we missing something?
Two books I read recently fit into this discussion. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and How to Stop Time by Matt Haig.
Both books follow male protagonists, the former a butler in between the two world wars, and the latter a man who ages slowly and has lived through several time periods, all the time searching for his missing daughter.
Firstly, Mr Stevens, the butler in Remains of the Day absolutely lives to be a butler. Much of the book is about him addressing how to have dignity in his profession and what being a good butler looks like. I found him such an intriguing narrator, and the way he is so loyal and dedicated to his master, Mr Darrington is fascinating. It's as if he believes he only exists to serve him, even when rumours emerge about his master’s involvement with Anti-Semitism in the build-up to WW2. As time goes on, we see him age but not really change. He has a new master and towards the end meets up with Miss Kenton, an old colleague, who at this stage confesses the love she once had for him. But, still, Mr Stevens doesn’t even flinch at the confession, merely moves on in the conversation, showing how a relationship is something he would never even consider. He has very few friends and social interactions. Everything is about his role as a butler. This is to such an extent that he overhears people bantering at the book’s ending, something he isn’t accustomed to. The very closing lines show him contemplating how he could practice his banter, not for a social purpose, but for a working one.
“I should hope, then, that by the time of my employer’s return, I shall be in a position to pleasantly surprise him.”
While I found his dedication admiral in the way he chooses to serve his employer, there is real heartbreak in his inability to have a life outside of it. This is in contrast to Tom, the protagonist in How to Stop Time. He’s working as a history teacher, recounting many historical events to children which he has actually lived through, having met the likes of Shakespeare. Throughout the book, his main anxieties are about what the future holds and his daughter, who has inherited his ability to slowly age, is. There are many things Haig is trying to say about life in this novel, but the thing that struck me most is the way he emphasises the importance of living in the moment, cherishing those around you. That’s where Tom seems to get to by the end. Unlike Mr Stevens, who fails to carry relationships at all, Tom has carried many he knows he will eventually lose. While he lets that truth distract him from treasuring them rather than worrying about their endings, he eventually finds fulfilment in what they are and what he can nurture them to become.
This brings me back to my pondering about work-life balance. Does work have to be so insular? Is it really just about us and the way we want to live for ourselves? People are in everything we do and I think it’s much more fulfilling when we look to enjoy and cherish the people we encounter in our work.