On Washing Dishes

The secret to finding meaning in the mundane.

We’re all looking for meaning, perhaps the Millennial generation even more than our parents. At least that’s what I read on the internet these days. We need to be special. We’re not concerned so much with the two-point-whatever kids and the white picket fence and the car in the garage and the 401k. I want to do something that’s me – something that makes me feel whole. Yet we’ve found ourselves staggering under debt and brewing lattes – or so the narrative goes.

My own “millennial void” isn’t so bad. I live in Washington, D.C. and manage social media for a nonprofit. It’s a good gig, yet as I flip open my laptop and sit down for another eight hours on Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail, I still wonder in my more lucid moments what I’m doing with my life. The tweets flow by; each 140-character blurb appears like a struck match, burned down and extinguished in seconds in the ever-flowing stream running into a never-filling sea of data. Ten open tabs, each full of useful (or at least interesting) information, call out constantly for my attention. Each day is a frantic, fanatical scramble from news story to blog post to video clip to email inbox – over and over again.

The possibility of boredom may be gone forever, but living in one of the world’s most interconnected cities during history’s most interconnected era has a dark side: the lure of busyness. There’s always something to be doing, but the digital age reminds us that there’s always something potentially better. And so in the face of limitless opportunities, we try to choose as many opportunities as possible.

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has a word for the busy ones in his devotional classic, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing:

The busy ones that neither toil nor are oppressed but are just busy, think that they have escaped when they have contrived to avoid sufferings in this life; hence they do not wish to be disturbed either by hearing or thinking about that which is terrible. Yes, it is true that they have escaped. They have also escaped having any insight into life and have escaped into meaninglessness.

The rush of having things to do and places to be, Kierkegaard says, is a trap that distracts us from contemplating the futility of life. It leaves us mired not in difficulties, but in purposelessness, a vanity of vanities. Is that all we’ve escaped into when we fill up our schedules and check off our checklists?

Even when I have time to step away from the present task, conversation, or email in front of me, I can feel the busyness infiltrating and subsuming my life. On the rare nights when I don’t have prior commitments, I go home paralyzed by decision fatigue. I could sit down and write for an hour; maybe try to get published somewhere. Or I could exercise; your twenties only come around once. I could watch another episode of The West Wing; it’s the perfect “young-in-D.C.” show. I could call my mom; God knows I don’t do that enough. I could keep plowing through Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples; the volumes are dense, and I kind of regret starting them, but after a thousand pages I can’t give up now.

Those are all good things, of course. I wish I could do each of them more often. But which to choose? Kierkegaard’s words haunt me as I grapple with the choice, forcing my gaze up to the eternal questions: What is worth doing? What do I want to spend myself on? What does God want me to spend myself on?

Here’s Kierkegaard again, on how we can find meaning within our limitations:

The person, who in decisiveness wills to be and to remain loyal to the Good, can find time for all possible things. No, he cannot do that. But neither does he need to do that, for he wills only one thing . . . and so he finds ample time for the good.

Wait, there’s another thing I could do. I could wash the dishes.

Someone has to do it; might as well be me. Clearing out that sink isn’t an option. With four twenty-something guys sharing a house, it can pile up quickly.

If purity of heart is to will one thing—that is, the Good—then doing the dishes gives me assurance that I am in fact living in God’s will. When I do the dishes, I don’t have that nagging uncertainty over whether this is the best thing I could be doing. In that moment I’m at peace, knowing that my life is splayed out before eternity and not men, and so everything has significance. If God cares equally for the salvation of both the king and the peasant, as Kierkegaard insists, then surely He cares equally for the tasks they do.

In the existential act of rinsing forks and scrubbing pans, I escape the busyness of the news cycle and the noise of the urban night life. It frees me to delight in simply existing in a place where there is nothing God would rather have me do. In that moment, nothing can improve upon the task I’m engaged in. In that moment, I can stand before God with a clear conscience. In that moment, my life is whole.

Whole. What a precious, elusive jewel in the rocky landscape of the modern age.

It’s a beautiful irony, for someone who journeyed to an influential city to escape mediocrity, to find existential satisfaction in the kitchen. Who would have thought a moment like that could be so sublime, that the mundane could be infused with such high purpose?

They say the Spirit works in mysterious ways. It works in boring ways too.

For his day job, Andrew Collins manages social media and writes for a nonprofit news outlet. He harbors wistful dreams of being a screenwriter, loves living in a big city, strives to read promiscuously, and hopes to travel more.

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