About a year ago in my creative writing class, we were asked our opinion on why people do nice things. Without even pausing to consider, I said ‘Because we feel constantly guilty and are trying to compensate for everything that we take from the world.’
No one really added anything to that spurt of passion and it was a bit awkward, to be honest.
But my innate response to the question forced me to confront quite a scary reality about myself; I consider myself to be very, very driven by my personalised strain of ethics. It helps me to decide how to respond to pretty much everything, regardless of whether or not it is immediately obvious to others. But what if, contrary to what the self-entitled soul within me likes to believe, I do so only because I feel guilty about the burden that my human life puts on the world, and not because I am a good person?
And we cannot hide from it; there is much to feel guilty about, no matter who we are. For a start, from birth, we are raised into a world of consumerism and greed. We are fed lies, which we inadvertently pass on. We inhabit cycles of waste, egoism and insensibility. We contribute to the ultimate death of a planet that is the reason for our existence. There is too much – we have to strive to give something back.
Let’s be honest, though, it is too much guilt for our brains to hold. Which is why working in retail is a particular challenge.
In order to fund my GAP year travels, I am currently working in a shop. The work can be slow. We get customers that complain about things so trivial that it makes you laugh out loud as they shout at you (which, as you can imagine, they really love). Sometimes I go full hours without serving anyone, and so take to terrorising the village and stalking through the furniture department trying to find some means of productivity. All the standard traits of any similar workplace, I am sure.
But all of these things are not so much huge causes of concern to me. There is one area, however, that I struggle with every day; the inhibition of my moral commentary. We CANNOT challenge a customer to the extent that we would like to, even if they are nasty to us. One of my colleagues was called ‘totally inferior and useless’ by a customer the other day, whilst another was told to ‘stick your help in your hat and smoke it’ (although that one was quite funny). Our response, of course, is to smile and apologise for any inconvenience caused. We really, truly, deeply mean it. For what courtesy we show them, you would almost think that we are being paid to do it.
Similarly, I cannot divulge in political rant directed at the inaccuracy of any of the customers’ passing comments. One woman was complaining about how complicated the bulb system now is compared to its apparently more simple past, and said ‘Brexit should sort that out.’ I laughed politely and said ‘oh, I’m not sure that Brexit will solve that’ (‘that’ being new lingo for ‘much whatsoever’).
I cannot glare at the customers who pay 5p for a plastic bag that they clearly do not need. Instead, I must pack their purchases into one and move on.
In retail, ignorance must go unscathed, and with a receipt.
So must we uphold our moral beliefs at all points, even if it taints the so-called standard of our work?
It is painful be obligated to shrug off behaviour that is unkind and offensive. But if you choose to work somewhere, you choose to adopt the company’s ethos. If I want to express my opinions on everything that I feel strongly about to customers, I should apply to work somewhere that does not pride itself on the endless understanding of the workers.
The best you can do is to give them nothing. Do not tell them they are right. You are representative of the company, and any company you work for should not reflect values that you do not. But, alas, you cannot sass them like you would normally. Whatever it is that drives any of us to be moral – guilt, compassion, religion or love – need not be completely stifled in the face of professionalism.
If we want to fight for justice, the best we can do is to work ourselves up into a position in which we can make a difference. That, to me, is what growing up is – testing the waters of diverse situations. Have a goal, and pursue it. Being moral does not always mean being loud. It can mean collecting opinions by experiencing different jobs and stances, and working to exude this accumulation of intelligence when the time comes.
If you wish to discuss this with me further, you will probably find me on checkouts. Don’t be a dick and you will brighten my day.