Read: Night as Frontier


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published in Bahá'í Studies Review, vol. 7 (19957

      A particularly illuminating work by Murray Melbin, entitled, Night as Frontier,(1) was published some ten years ago. It tells the reader that on an average night some 29 million people in America - 12% of the population - stay up after midnight. The reader is further startled by the fact that none of these people suffer from insomnia, or are even watching television. It is mainly business or work that keeps them up.

      Once the wild west was the frontier, and sometimes the boreal forests in North America - vast areas where more stable populations followed the first new settlers. Gradually, these geographical frontiers became incorporated in the routine way of life. The frontiers receded as services, both material and spiritual, and goods followed each wave of new populations. Melbin's observations that civilization is now invading our last frontier - the night - can make Bahá'ís more aware of the dilemma which this newly-conquered frontier poses to contemporary Bahá'í communities.

      Not too long ago, the arrival of night meant that the natural rhythm of one's daily life came to an end. Even battles stopped when night arrived. The advancement of technology has pushed back the edge of night and society has filled the vacuum with new activity. Since the time of Bahá'u'lláh, human beings have been able to extend their life by some one third, without having to add one year to their life! All it took was a light-bulb which extended one's day from 8 pm to midnight. This extension has become habitual because our society now depends upon night-time activity to ensure the well-being of those who are awake during daylight hours. The night-time, like any frontier, has become a land of opportunity - and constraints. This is the frontier of overtime pay, if you are lucky. This is the frontier of making new friends (it has been shown that any activity during the night is marked with greater affability than during the day). The voluntary choice of night work, according to one study,(2) makes it possible for workers to escape the control and supervision of day shift work.

      This frontier not only has opportunities, but also imposes very serious constraints on individuals. Feeling obliged by economic and technological factors,(3) company executives decide to rely on night workers to extract profits and minimise costs. Whenever possible, night workers will seek daytime work, motivated by the knowledge that, with night work, comes industrial accidents, low morale, fatigue, and the breakup of social routines. Physical, social, and spiritual dimensions of the individual are thus adversely affected under such conditions of work. Social researchers are unanimous in their findings about the overarching, negative impact of night work on family life,(4) already beset by low-paying service jobs.

      More recent research shows that the extent of night work, sometimes euphemistically called "evening" work, is broadening among the population. For example, some countries like the Netherlands and Spain have at least 15% of the population engaged in this type of work and some companies have employees of whom 42% engage in night work.(5) Harvey Krahn in Canada reiterates the finding that night work involves less job security, lower pay, and fewer fringe benefits. The proportion of workers holding more than one job has risen since the early 1980s.(6) Krahn also found that part-time work in general increased since 1976 at an annual rate of 6.9%, until 1994 when it covered 23% of all employees. Involuntary part-time increased to 36%. Women are three times more likely to work part-time than men.

      The implications of the increasing prevalence of night work as the new frontier for Bahá'í communities are far-ranging. If we assume for the moment that the Bahá'í population reflects the demographic composition of the larger society, it means that between 12% to 15% of our fellow Bahá'ís are not able to attend feasts or assembly meetings. Whereas not too long ago in Bahá'í communities assembly meetings took place at a time when all of the elected members could meet (usually in the evenings), now a number of people see such meetings as standing in the way of their involuntary obligations to night work. As more parts of the economy and society adjust to the night frontier, it will become increasingly more difficult for Bahá'ís to disengage themselves from this trend.

      For some national Bahá'í communities, their particular demographic composition, in fact, heightens the disruption by night work on Bahá'í community life. In Canada, for example, the Bahá'í community is very well represented in terms of youth and women, has average representation of adults, and is underrepresented among the aged. In such a national Bahá'í community, the impact of night as frontier is even more severely felt, because the very segments of the population that involve night workers (especially youth and women) are also very well represented in the Bahá'í community. When 90% of new jobs in Canada are part-time and when many workers in stores must be on an instant-call standby basis, it does not take much imagination to see the debilitating effects of such trends on Bahá'í community life. Failing to respond to such instant calls, part-time night workers will forfeit their jobs.(7)

      Melbin's book also underscores another important implication of the night as frontier. Low-income groups, ethnic minorities, men under 35, and women of all ages are the main denizens of the world of night work, while day-time work is often closed to them. If this trend continues we should find that only Bahá'ís who do not belong to these groups can attend Bahá'í functions which are set according to the "traditional" pattern of work and rest. Are we surprised that some of our assemblies no longer can meet than barely with a quorum? Is this new frontier crippling our communities? Are we personally never going to meet that 12-15% of the Bahá'í community? Are members of ethnic groups less able to participate in the "normal" rhythm of our communities?

      At this critical juncture of our history where do we as Bahá'ís stand in this night frontier? As a demographic minority, the Bahá'í community cannot exercise any direct influence in the way companies arrange their shift-work and night work, so that companies either require fewer night workers or change the organisation of work shifts. Moreover, the reduction of hours of work and the lowering of the retirement age, as "solutions" to night work, are also beyond the pale of Bahá'í influence.

      Many groups in the past offer a sorry spectacle when they are absorbed by the demands of the new frontier: hucksters, gun-totting desperados, Lone Rangers, whiskey salesmen, peddlers of snake medicine. And all Americans, according to popular opinion, have horse thieves in their genealogy of the wild west. Fortunately, however, history shows how some groups have managed to resist the challenges posed by new frontiers and, in fact, take full advantage of the new frontier. The groups which have spiritually, rather than materially, conquered the frontier were those which maintained a certain discipline and detachment: the Moravians in Labrador, the Oblate Fathers in the Canadian Arctic, or the Puritans in early America. We may disagree with the tenets of some or all of these, but the point is this: the frontier became a spiritual opportunity which suited their ends, while maintaining their cohesiveness and their communities. They were not absorbed by the material mentality of the frontier.

      With respect to the night as frontier and religious communities, it appears that traditional western religious groups whose gatherings occur once a week and have consigned them to Sunday mornings, night work seems to have less of an effect than on non-traditional religious communities, who must rely on irregular, often daily, meetings to conduct their affairs.(8) Their many gatherings are not synchronized with the rhythms of night work. Some of these non-traditional groups, however, have been making a particular use of night work, to their advantage. In eastern Canada - in the four Atlantic provinces(9) - members of evangelical religious groups either own or work for office-cleaning companies during the night time, freeing them up to prosletyse during the day.

      Where do we, as Bahá'ís, then turn to, to ward off the material attractions of the new frontier? How do we help each other in establishing spiritual priorities in our lives? Unlike the vast majority of people who tend to seek personal solutions to social problems, Bahá'ís should articulate their approach to the night as frontier as essentially a spiritual dilemma and a question of social structure.

      Acknowledging the far-reaching influence of social structure may, at first glance, not be an easy task. As members of western, post-industrial society, we have ingested the belief of individualism as a fetish. We easily attribute such "failings" to personal flaws or lack of personal effort. The flood of self-help books and the rise of self-help groups are based on a psychological understanding of human life rather than an acknowledgement that some of the problems and solutions we face are social structural in nature. The fact that there is a society, a social structure that is not merely an aggregate of individuals, is something that we have difficulty in grasping.(10) Taking the famous example of the rotten apple in the barrel, my colleague Howard S. Becker once said that there is perhaps something wrong with the barrel in the first place that causes particular apples to rot. The belief that we should apply private solutions to private troubles is so ingrained in us, that we usually do not see private troubles as public issues. It is, however, possible to grasp the fundamental importance of society when we consider the following. Readers will, no doubt, offer other approaches or solutions.

      First, the Bahá'í community should not engage in blaming the victims of society which is pushing them to the new frontier by virtue of their powerlessness. Society seems to exercise a strong hold in the way it forces its disadvantaged members (of particular ethnic groups, migrants, the partially-employed young, etc.) to turn to shift-work and night work. For some it is virtually impossible to escape the frontier of the night, especially now when even double-income families in the minimum-wage society can barely make ends meet (unlike two decades ago when a family could easily have subsisted on a single income). Many cannot exercise any choice but to turn to the frontier of the night. A personal strategy of choosing only particular kinds of work or careers only seems at hand for those already in a position to make those choices. We thus cannot blame the "nightworkers" for their "disappearance" from Bahá'í community life. Such an understanding of the problem relieves the night worker from seeing himself or herself as someone to blame and frees all of us to find the solution in the way society has been organized.

      Second, the Bahá'í community can think about re-organizing the rhythm of Bahá'í community life to accommodate this temporary facet of society by holding feasts at different times (such as the weekends, if necessary) and having committees meet at a time that are less stressful for night workers and at a time that does not compete with the workers' need to pay attention to family life. In some cases, for example, a night worker has preserved a particular day of rest to be with the family, and communities can become more observant of that fact.

      Third, we can accentuate the benefits of the Bahá'í calendar, with its feasts, fasts, and especially the holy days, setting them aside at times when no night work takes place or during the day when everyone else is working. In this fashion, holy days and other Bahá'í events are positively associated with "times off" from the stress of night work. Bahá'ís can thus collectively play an important role. As assemblies become increasingly aware of this new trend, that awareness becomes part of their planning of teaching and deepening work. They can start to innovate in scheduling events, so that the proverbial other 12%-15% of the Bahá'ís can more freely participate in them. More drastically perhaps, Bahá'í communities should give more serious thought about their own conventionally-established rhythms. Are there other ways to take into account the night as frontier and, in the process, revitalize our communities as well?

      Fourth, Bahá'í communities can start using technology to their own advantage, such as the use of less time-bound electronic formats for bulletins. While "cyber" feasts should not be advocated, there might be a middle ground for some of the Bahá'ís to engage in Bahá'í community life, using the "cyber" as a starting point.

      Melbin's Night as Frontier offers an insightful new look at modern life. As a sociologist and a Bahá'í I am constantly seeking to correlate the facts of Bahá'í community life with the facts of the larger society and its problems. Such a correlation does not necessarily entail compromise in the fundamentals of Bahá'í community life, but it does allow us to come to terms with societal trends in an imaginative way. However inadequate my insights are, Melbin has allowed me to look at society with new eyes. At the risk of making a poor analogy, one could say it is a question of the light bulb meeting the light of the new Revelation. Neither frontier should be ignored.

End Notes

  1. Murray Melbin, Night as Frontier: Colonizing the World After Dark (New York, The Free Press: 1987).
  2. Daniel Mercure, Daniel Regimbald, and Alain Tanguay, "Voluntary Night Work: To Remain Autonomous," Sociologie du Travail 29.3 (1987): 359-363
  3. Ralf Dahrendorf, Eberhard Köhler, and Françoise Piotet, New Forms of Work and Activity (Dublin: European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 1986) 175.
  4. Ibid., 175-179; and J. Carpentier and P. Cazamian, Night Work: Its Effects on the Health and Welfare of the Worker (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1977).
  5. Harald Bielenski, New Forms of Work and Activity: Survey of Experience at Establishment Level in Eight European Countries, (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Dublin: 1994), 267-268.
  6. Harvey Krahn, "Non-standard work on the Rise," Perspectives and Labour and Income (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, Winter 1995), Catalogue 75-0001E, 35-36.
  7. I have noticed that companies seldom take into account the assignment dates and examinations of university students, among whom many are employed as part-timers in the night economy. The necessity to answer those instant calls takes precedence almost over anything else.
  8. There is no published research on the impact of night work on religious communities. My comments are gleaned from personal experience and reflection.
  9. Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick.
  10. There are a number of highly insightful books that speak eloquently to the problem of individual fetishm, such as Allan G. Johnson, The Forest for the Trees: An Introduction to Sociological Thinking (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991).

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