Laundry, Life Lessons, and the Cosmos

I hate doing the laundry.

I hate having to lug the hamper up and down five flights of stairs. I hate having to pay each time I want to wash, and again to dry. I hate folding and ironing and putting away, so the clean laundry often just becomes its own pile next to the dirty pile in the bedroom, out of which we pick individual socks as needed. And I hate those piles.

But laundry is just one of those chores, like dusting and washing dishes, that must be done. Not because it will ever be finished, but because if we neglect it, we’ll end up living in filth. As I wrote  in my last article, it’s important to continually strive to become better, and being faithful in our daily tasks is part of that process. The goal is not perfection, but improvement (at the very least, the desire for and effort towards improvement, which, I’m finding, sometimes matters even more than the end result).

Further, while I believe that the desire and effort to improve is good, and I believe that beauty and meaning can be found in the seemingly mundane daily tasks we must accomplish (like laundry), it’s important to step back from all of that and gain some perspective. Yes, it’s good to continually work to make ourselves better, but we must do so with the proper mindset so that we pursue the right kind of “better.”

I recently had a conversation with a woman I do administrative work for about automatic bill payments. She’d asked me to look into an automatic payment account for her, and I was explaining that the payee only accepts direct withdrawals from a bank account, requiring a routing number.

“Wow,” she said, impressed. “You know a lot about this kind of stuff, and you’re just a kid!”

Now, as someone who got married young, I’m used to people balking at my age. I tend to bristle at the shock I’m sometimes met with when I tell people that I’m twenty-three and have been married for three years.

But this time, I took it as a compliment. Here was a woman in her sixties, speaking with much more wisdom and perspective than I posses, reminding me that I have a lot of life left ahead of me and a lot of learning and experiencing left to do.

Since graduating college, I’ve been plagued by a sense of urgency to get on to the next “thing,” even though I don’t fully know what that is yet. Still, I’m restless. And the Internet doesn’t help; my Facebook and Instagram feeds remind me daily of what my peers are up to, which is to say, everything I could be doing. So I found my employer’s comment comforting. She’s right; in a lot of ways, I am still on the threshold of life. I have time. No need to lose sleep over such things.

And, when we step back to consider the big picture of life, it helps us see that the smaller, everyday things that consume our attention should not be our primary focus; rather, the state of our hearts and minds in the midst of our hectic lives is most important.

In her article “Human Stains,” Heather Havrilesky calls laundry an “eternal tide,” something we ought to surrender to instead of continually fighting to overcome. She makes a good point:

We have the things we have, rich or poor—or, like most of us, somewhere in the insecure in-between. Our windows are clean or dirty, our rugs are vacuumed or covered in dog hair, our closets are a mess or well-ordered, there are dirty dishes laying about or not. These things don’t define us, no matter how stubbornly we cling to the notion that they do.

She ends her piece musing about American Idol, saying that perhaps forgoing the dishes and ordering a pizza to eat with the kids while watching TV can be the nobler choice, promoting the idea of sharing a moving (or, at least, mutually enjoyable) experience with your family over running around “making things look clean:”

So what [if it seems like bad parenting]? Doesn’t that one girl make me cry every time she opens her mouth to sing? Doesn’t her voice change everything? And when my kids ask me why tears are rolling down my cheeks, I tell them that when someone can focus like that, with an open heart, with a calm mind, it’s like they’re channelling some divine force. There is nothing quite like that moment, I tell them, when you realise that you’re very small, that you’re not in control, but the grace of the whole world, the spirits of the dead, are rallying around you. In the soaring sound of her voice you can hear it: the sky is on her side.

Havrilesky here speaks of letting go of the anxiety that comes with trying to be perfect, like we once imagined we would be or like we imagine our Facebook friends to be. As that song by The Postal Service says, “everything looks perfect from far away.” Gazing off into my future, it’s easy to set some ideal of my “perfect” self up on a pedestal, hoping to become that person someday. Scrolling down my newsfeed, it’s easy to believe that every happy photograph or self-affirming status is evidence that I’m lagging behind. They aren’t afraid of the future. They’ve got everything together. They don’t have piles of dirty laundry hidden away in their bedrooms.

But, as Havrilesky says, it’s important to realize that we are small and not in total control, which is totally okay. The fact is actually comforting, and it serves to remind us what the motives behind our everyday actions and pursuits should be. We must lift our faces from time to time to consider the stars and remember our place in the midst of it all, because, as cliché as it sounds, that’s how we realize what’s truly important in life.

Every time I look at the sky, I’m reminded of how small I am and how big our Creator is. I feel at peace when I look up into the eternal vastness of space, because remembering my smallness in the universe puts everything in perspective. It’s both unsettling and eerily calming, the feeling that washes over me. It’s like floating, free and content.

Havrilesky is right. A perfectly clean house does not define us. Neither does the big corporate job, or the nice car, or the souvenirs from all of the foreign countries we’ve visited, or the fame, or the fortune, or whatever it is that keeps you up at night, worrying that you might not achieve it. How we do things—laundry included—is much more important and formative than what we do, and the how is directed by our relationship to God, which is the most important thing of all. And like laundry, we have spiritual “chores” to do to stay on track, like prayer, contemplation of Scripture, and other activities that help us commune with God. It’s not a perfect analogy; I don’t hate praying or reading my Bible (which is not to say that such tasks are always easy). But, just as neglecting household chores leads to a dirty home, neglecting spiritual tasks leads to a dirty soul. These activities keep the grime away and lay the foundation for a richer, more vibrant life, one that is properly oriented.

The stars remind us to carry on with our work free from worry or fear so we can become healthier and more fruitful,  not idolatrous worshippers of our own personal version of perfection. The cosmos silently urge us to embrace our smallness as children before a great and powerful and loving God, our heavenly Father, and to be at peace as long as our primary task is bettering our relationship with Him. Everything else will fall into place, and there’s no need to anxiously rush around.

After all, we’re just kids.

Image via ESO