Cruising in the Comfort Zone


I always used to believe that Jim Rockford, the main character of the 1970s television show The Rockford Files as played by James Garner, was the luckiest man alive. He lived alone in a trailer park and passed his days roaming seedy parts of LA and California solving crimes. He spent most of his waking hours in bars or visiting ex-girlfriends, and sometimes he’d just get in his clapped out convertible and drive along the Pacific Highway.

Jim had Freedom. I’ve always been jealous. But after years pacing the aisles in a science lab I’ve now earned some of my own Rockford Days. Having left the classroom I make a living as a relief teacher. Some days, if I’m not working, I just drive. I open the window, feel the breeze in my hair and pretend I’m on my way to rough up some washed-out methadone addict who owes ten grand in child support. I stop at a shop to buy a rock hard Chiko roll, still dripping with oil, and knock back a Coke.

Well, sometimes it’s a bit like that…

My point is, where has all our personal freedom gone? The union movement used to proclaim eight hours work, eight hours recreation and eight hours sleep. For many people it’s now closer to 11, five and eight. Australians just seem to keep working and, apparently, we love it.

The great thing about underemployment is the extra time you get to spend with yourself, your wife, kids and friends. I’m now home so early from school that I can take my sons to the local park to work on our kite flying. No, it’s not going well. We still haven’t got one airborne for more than four seconds, but the promise of flight is always there — just as it was for Jim.

Many of us seem unconcerned about the time we have lost. Somehow we equate more work, bigger homes, ever expanding plasma screen dimensions, cars that are or look more like a BMW, better schools for our kids, multi-burner barbecues, brassier tap fittings and more distant holiday destinations with happiness. More stuff. Or is it the need for a feeling of greater financial security in a world that is polarising between the have-a-lots and the have-a-bits? Are Aussies becoming stingier, tighter, less inclined to give of themselves? Are recent cries for help (in the form of more volunteers) from the Country Fire Service early signs of a paralysis of our national spirit?

The American writer Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it". This may explain why most of us are happy to soma out on Two and a Half Men while 5 million African children starve to death every year. It might explain why we don’t get too angry about the fact that the Commonwealth Bank just increased its annual net profit by 7 per cent to $4.8 billion while we fork out generous slabs of our income to pay off our mortgages.

The comfort zone is a strangely modern phenomenon. The "market" has convinced us that we can be okay — warm, safe, well fed, entertained, free from worry, from having to bother with other people’s problems — as long as we work long hours, accumulate buckets of wealth and disregard notices from school asking us to coach the Under-10s. I spent seven years of my life taking bets at the local TAB and, strangely enough, the winners did most of the complaining.

We have lost our spiritual zing. Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in Australia. This seems strange to me. Very few of the Buddha’s Noble Truths can penetrate our comfort zone. Take, for instance, the idea that life is made up of suffering. Suffering? Isn’t that what we’ve just managed to avoid? No one suffers on Hayman Island. And the notion that the only path to happiness is to accept suffering? It’s much easier to find your way with a Sat-Nav installed.

Religion seems much more palatable as a commodity. Adelaide’s Paradise Community Church caters for up to 6000 people a week. They run a primary school, TV studios and a cafe. They provide child care and operate separate ministries for 18 to 25-year-olds ("Powergen"), 26-35s ("Nextgen") and women ("bU"). Their online store sells books titled Celebrate Your Way to Happiness ($14, all major credit cards accepted) and Are You From Mars or Venus? When you join the church you get a book called Getting Started with God and a free CD, The Life You’ve Always Wanted.

It’s good to see that the market takes care of everything. When I went to Sunday school we were given a free pen for memorising the 23rd Psalm.

I have the feeling that religion won’t solve our problems. We can work all we want, but a longing and emptiness remains. The comfort zone depends on us not understanding these longings. But why are so many people depressed? And why do nearly 2000 people each year (mainly male) kill themselves? Aren’t we the Lucky Country?

Which brings me back to Jim Rockford, and freedom. Whenever I hear the theme to the show I feel happy, as if we could all stop chasing our tails for a minute and sit on the back lawn to suck back a few coldies. Jim had it right. Yes, you gotta work, I suppose, but why do we have to take it all so damn seriously?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.