Feierabend isn’t just a German word for ‘work-life balance’. While it’s related, ‘work-life balance’ is a term that can often end up just as nebulous in meaning as the problem it’s trying to correct. Instead, the German approach seems to acknowledge that there will always be tension between the work self and the private self. Rather than attempting to reconcile the two, the disconnection that comes with Feierabend establishes boundaries between them. It also usually creates a path between the two states, like dressing for the office and changing after work . . . .
When I did my medical oncology fellowship in Manila, I made a conscious decision to live as far away from the hospital as was allowable. I got curious glances from people when I said I spent an hour or more of commute from Mandaluyong to Philippine General Hospital. I could easily have rented a condo unit nearby if I had so wished; a lot of my colleagues did that. But I wanted the clear separation of work and rest to be established. I did not want to see the hospital from my window. My experience in med school showed me that proximity to the workplace was a bad idea. Because the hospital was just right across the street from my Taft condo, I did not feel like I had gone home at all.
In retrospect, those long commutes proved to be worth it. I finished reading Calvin's The Institutes, listened to Tim Keller's preachings, enjoyed New Yorker Fiction podcasts, and heard myself think. The view from the 20th floor did not consist of the hospital. Save for two or three incidences, I did not see anyone from work. My Mandaluyong neighborhood consisted of cafés devoid of medical students and doctors. The streets were cleaner. I could do long walks at night without fear of getting stabbed. I was anonymous. On Saturday mornings, when I did not have to report for work, I was like every one else, sipping coffee and reading with pleasure.
I understand that for doctors, it is a challenge to separate work and life completely. I could not do that. My phone rings on odd moments. I receive SMS updates about patients that I must respond to. But the ritual of the long commute gives me the illusion of distance: I am home, and the hospital is elsewhere.