This extract is part of the Forum Network series on New Societal Contract and will feed into upcoming discussions at OECD Forum 2019.
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Your name is called and you automatically assume a facial expression of slight suffering. You enter the consultation room, stopping briefly next to the doctor writing at her desk, and continuing when she doesn’t look up. You sit down opposite the doctor and cough a ridiculous cough, which was genuine until a moment ago and will be genuine again afterward. You feel like you’re faking. How dare it—you grow enraged in your thoughts—how dare your employer intervene in your nice private sickness, how dare it prompt you to suspect you’re not ill at all, that you just want to get out of working so as to harm them. However, because in this case I know better, I say: It’s not your current employer that’s unnerving you here, it’s more the after-effects of my mother’s first and for a long time only employer, the East German Post Office, which made total and utter use of my mother and never allowed her a break, which meant my mother was always rather glad when I was ill because it was easier to stay home from work when she had a sick child. I’m not saying my mother hoped I’d get at least a minor, sufficiently convincing illness, but I am saying she didn’t swear silently like I do now when my children are sick and I can’t get to my desk, or barely can.
And I know too: sometimes I wasn’t sick, sometimes I just pretended, and my mother gave me advice on how to look and what to say if we ran into any of her workmates. So it’s that childhood playacting that’s making you assume you might be putting on an act now.
While the doctor goes on making notes, let me tell you a little more about my mother, who started work at the age of fourteen, and now knows all about leaving the working world. She often used to say: You just act a bit crazy and they’ll send you off to early retirement. But I can’t do that. If only I could.
A while ago, I accompanied my mother to a court hearing. Arthritic and released into early retirement, my mother had to go to court against the pensions office. They wanted to see my mother working again, but my mother couldn’t and wouldn’t work another day. Essentially, my mother wasn’t work-shy; she was the opposite of work-shy, more an excessively conscientious person who took on all work, which is why work had managed to cause the greatest and clearest damage to her and eventually turned her into a person who needed to escape work.
My mother wore simple everyday clothes to the court hearing; she’d been advised not to dress up, to look poor but not like she neglected her appearance. Her lawyer smelled like a smoke-filled room and my mother wanted nothing to do with him. She’d have preferred the pensions office lawyer, who sat at his table with a fat binder and had many other cases ahead of him.
The judge, a mild-looking, polite person, asked how long my mother had taken to walk from the station to the court, and my mother said twenty minutes, but she’d had to lean on a bollard for a five-minute rest. Despite my mother’s actual infirmity, which has never been doubted, a performance took place that day, beginning even before she arrived at court. She had left the house at a slower pace than usual and then left the train bravely with her constantly painful knee, smiling as she walked and trying to look composed. She knew the rule that said she must not be able to walk longer than fifteen minutes in one go, if she was to stay in early retirement.
How would my mother have walked if she hadn’t been appearing in court and hadn’t had to consider that rule? In the same way, except it would mainly have been internal. On the outside, my mother would have concentrated on pointing out trip hazards and people pushing and shoving, or she’d have looked out for a café and said: I could sit in the sun watching people for hours.
I think a dishonest leg is better than one that’s actually diseased; under all circumstances, it makes sense to stick out a dishonest leg to trip up this working world that you’ll have to be part of for a little while longer. There’s no point in talking to it.
I’d been in court as my mother’s audience and companion. The judge had come in with his robe wafting in the draft and the play had begun. My mother provided her reports, describing how her knee was a handicap and wouldn’t improve. The judge suggested that my mother—who, on close examination of the case and the labor market, wouldn’t be able to work anymore anyway—should be released into permanent retirement. That earned him the ire of both lawyers; they hadn’t yet fought their main battle and felt cheated out of combat. The pensions office lawyer said she could work perfectly well, and could be expected to carry out light, seated activities for ten hours a week. My mother’s lawyer said the other lawyer ought to give her that activity, if such a thing existed. His opponent responded that he might well do that. They agreed on a further extension of the temporary retirement status, with the next hearing in three years’ time.
My mother stood up after the verdict, only to sit straight back down again. In the end she limped out of the court on weak knees, no longer knowing how strongly she was actually limping.
I think of Heinrich Böll, of his novel Group Portrait with Lady and the leg he describes in it, allegedly the most dishonest leg in the world. I think a dishonest leg is better than one that’s actually diseased; under all circumstances, it makes sense to stick out a dishonest leg to trip up this working world that you’ll have to be part of for a little while longer. There’s no point in talking to it.
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