The other day I cleaned the bathroom, swept the porch, kitchen, and living room, washed and dried my clothes, and washed the dishes. There was plenty more I could have done. But I knew I’d be doing those chores again eventually, some sooner and some later, and would have to do others at some point as well.
What else in life is equally as satisfying and frustrating as doing chores? The gratification that comes from emptying the sink of its dirty dishes evaporates with the realization that more dishes are coming soon. Hanging the last clean shirt in the closet reminds me I’ll have to put whatever I’m wearing now in the hamper and begin the process again. The two feelings are inextricably linked, like they share an orbit that never ends, just keeps spinning.
I was thinking about this even before reading Gracy Olmstead’s post at The American Conservative on the value of housework, which is itself a meditation on Mary Townsend’s essay in The Hedgehog Review. “The work of maintaining a home,” Olmstead writes, “is tied up inexplicably in the question of what it means to be human, and the person who cares for the home must adhere to a set of underlying ideas and mores that make his or her work meaningful.”
Those ideas and mores are the key to not going crazy while undertaking the repetitive, unsexy labor that often feels more Sisyphean than sacred. As Olmstead writes, it’s work well suited not to gaining esteem, but for “cultivating virtue”:
It requires regular exercise of the moral imagination: remembering that what one does when scrubbing floors and bathtubs is much more than menial labor. Perhaps the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness” came about because of the virtue-carving we often do when we clean and order the same square footage, day after day after day.
Pondering what any chore or responsibility does for us along with what it requires of us is a clarifying experiment. Cleaning the same square footage over and over again, Olmstead writes, “requires discipline, perseverance, patience, humility—and a good deal of kindness towards the inhabitants of one’s home.” It also requires forgiveness: towards yourself, for being frustrated about having to do the chore yet again; towards your home’s other inhabitants, for making the same mess yet again, and towards whatever you’re cleaning, for being so needy and unable to stay clean.
Like running, I tend to treat chores as things to endure, to get over with, so I usually fill them with a podcast, audiobook, or music to help distract myself from the pain and make it go by faster. But that distraction and noise can also undermine this cultivation process. Enduring the time in silence, my hands and body occupied by mindless labor, allows my mind to remain open to imagination and creativity. And as this process repeats over and over, a liturgy forms. Suddenly what’s usually an annoyance can become “a set of mental and spiritual disciplines that grow our moral imagination, and point us toward greater happiness.”
Achieving “greater happiness” through thankless labor seems antithetical to the ethos of the cult of productivity, which promises greater happiness through the latest app or relaxation technique. But thankless labor has been around a lot longer than Getting Things Done, and isn’t trademarked. It’s also abundant, self-replenishing, and always waiting for us, even when we don’t want it. I’d better get to it.
(For the record, my top five most satisfying chores: vacuuming, lawn mowing, washing dishes, mopping, and shoveling. Least satisfying: dusting, grocery shopping, raking, weeding, and laundry.)