Is there work that is unworthy of me?

Jonathan’s post got me thinking about housework again.

My family has a heritage of domestic help. My great-grandmother had nannies, and servants. However, she loved to cook and was apparently very good at it. Her kitchen was equipped with a special sink with a cover, where she could put vegetable peelings and dirty dishes to await a servant who would come along after she was finished and clean up the mess. My grandmother had a cleaning lady and so did my Mom. In fact, I never really learned how to clean house while living in my parent’s home — I was only taught how to prepare for the cleaning lady to come. Things had to be removed off your dresser so the cleaning lady could dust, and under your bed had to be tidy so the cleaning lady could vacuum. This was not very demanding work. The cleaning lady seemed nice but quiet — she was from Yugoslavia and spoke a small amount of English.

I am breaking with my family tradition of having household help, and not simply because of budgetary constraints.

There is a part of me that bristles at the Martha Cannon quote that Jonathan cites. I am well-educated and have aspirations beyond a clean toilet. Yet I have concerns about the idea that there is any type of work that is unworthy of me, and is more suited for someone else who is somehow “lesser than me”. Such a statement smacks of pride and elitism.

Brigham Young wrote, “To serve the classes that are living on them, the poor, the laboring men and women are toiling, working their lives out to earn that which will keep a little life in them. Is this equality? No! What is going to be done? The Latter-Day Saints will never accomplish their mission until this inequality shall cease on the earth.”(JD 19:47)

Or in the words of Hugh Nibley –“Somebody always pays for the lunch, and it is obvious that some people eat a lot of lunches they don’t pay for, while a lot of others pay for a lot of lunches they never eat.” (Approaching Zion, “But What Kind of Work, p. 252).

Is it important to still engage in work that we might perceive as drudgery? The answer for myself is yes. I know many individuals who don’t like housework or think it is beneath them — yet I still find value in it and have incorporated it into my spiritual practice. By taking care of this aspect of my stewardship, I doubt that I am wasting my talents in the cauldron of modern nothingness.

Please don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of days I don’t want to wash dishes again, do laundry again, or wash the kitchen floor again. And as my family matures this becomes less and less of my work. But housework is generally no longer my enemy. My perception changed greatly several years ago after reading an essay by Kamala Masters called, “Just Washing Dishes”. Masters is a Buddhist woman whose main emphasis is on metta or loving-kindness practice.

At a time in her life when she was over-whelmed by the responsibilities of raising young children, her spiritual teacher taught her about how much freedom and happiness there can be in the simplicity of being present with whatever is happening and how this could uncover deeper truths. He stood beside her at the kitchen sink and gave her a dharma talk that changed her life.

He said, “Have a general awareness of just washing the dishes, the movement of your hands, the warmth or coolness of the water, picking a dish up, soaping it, rinsing it, putting it down. Nothing else is happening now — just washing the dishes.” Then he told me to experience my posture, or just notice that the process of seeing was happening. He said that I didn’t need to go slow, or to observe everything moment-by-moment, but that I should have a general mindfulness of whatever was happening as I washed the dishes. “Just washing dishes”

…So I continued, just washing dishes. Once in awhile Munindraji would ask me, “What is happening now?” When I replied, “Now I’m worried about paying the mortgage”, he would further instruct, “Just notice, ‘worried’ and bring your attention back to washing dishes.” When I told him, “I’m planning what to cook for dinner.” He repeated, “Just notice, ‘planning’ because that’s what is in the present moment, and then return to just washing the dishes.”

Learning something from his sincerity, I practiced earnestly as I washed the dishes many times a day… Doing this ordinary task with intentional mindfulness has helped me notice and experience many things more clearly: the changing physical sensations, the flow of thoughts and emotions, and my surrounding environment are all much more alive … To do this has required me to develop more perseverance, patience, humility, clear intention, honesty with myself and much more. These are no small things. Just from washing dishes! So day by day, dish by dish, a lot of the training of the mind and heart can be accomplished.

Adam and Eve were invited to work even before the Fall — dress this garden, take care of it, have joy in it. I prefer a model like Scott and Helen Nearing who were devoted to a lifestyle that emphasized the importance to work, on the one hand, and contemplation or play, on the other. Is there work that is unworthy of me? I hope not. Instead, I have hope that all my work is worthy of me, that all work can move me on my spiritual path, that all work can advance me as I live this “protracted gleam called life”.


  1. Great post, Kris. Sumer went through similar angst before we first hired Luisa in our NY apt. Sumer for years described her to others as “our friend that helps us clean every other Tuesday…for money.”

  2. Thanks for this. I think I’ll go wash the dishes now. You have inspired me to a greater cause. =)

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I love that David Neeleman of Jet Blue rolls up his sleeves and helps to clean the plane when it lands.

    That’s one good thing about the church; it gives me opportunities for humble work (such as cleaning the building) that most people in my professional position would never dream of stooping to. There’s a humility that comes from cleaning toilets that can come in no other way.

  4. I think that there is another side to this- that there is not work that is unworthy of someone else. I struggle with this side more than the other side, and am inclined to do more than I probably should because ‘they shouldn’t have to do that.’ I have to remember that my husband helped dirty those dishes and it’s only fair for him to wash them now and then.

  5. Kris – Thanks for your thoughts on this issue. Years ago when our sons were toddlers (before the common use of disposable diapers) I made a deal with my wife that I would do the majority of the dishes if she would change the majority of the dirty diapers. By now, thirty years later, doing dishes has become theraputic for me. Although I am an otherwise unorganized mess, I find great joy in finding the right space for each dish in the dishwasher (I know loading the dishwasher is not quite the same as actually washing the dishes but it does require some serious rinsing) and utilizing all the space in the dishwasher while allowing enough clearance for adequate cleaning. It is a real science. And I especially find great therapy in ironing clothes, although I usually send my cotton shirts to the laundry. I notice that others find peace in doing other household repair and maintenance jobs in a slow and methodical way that gives them satisfaction and pride, a practice that I could certainly use in my own life. Thanks again.

  6. This is a wonderful post Kris (as always). I like the quote from Brigham Young and I am somehow reminded of that RS lesson “Those who eat without labor are the sick ones of this earth.” There is serious resonance there. At the same time I have a hard time intellectually discerning one type of labor over another in the eternal scheme of things.

  7. Eric Russell says:

    “There’s a humility that comes from cleaning toilets that can come in no other way.”

    Unless you’re cleaning Merrill J. Bateman’s personal toilet in the ASB, as I did one semester, and then toilet cleaning comes with a great deal of pride.

  8. Thanks for the comments. And while some of these thoughts have been swirling around in my head for awhile, I’m still refining them. I think that alot of it has to do with how we perceive the work –if we regard it with disdain and disrespect, won’t we see the people who perform it the same way? If we value it and are willing to show this in the way we treat those who do it, including how we pay them, it’s a different story.

    Starfoxy — I see what you’re saying but I don’t necessarily see it as the other side. Finding value in all work doesn’t mean that one has to do all of the work.

  9. Eric,

    The proper abbreviation for the building are the initials for Smoot Office Building.

  10. Part of the mission of the Church is to help its members gain the best employment possible. In the city of Enoch there was no inequality because everyone helped everyone else gain the greatest earning power. That’s our role also in relief society and in quorums.

  11. I think that alot of it has to do with how we perceive the work –if we regard it with disdain and disrespect, won’t we see the people who perform it the same way? If we value it and are willing to show this in the way we treat those who do it, including how we pay them, it’s a different story.

    I think this is true Kris. Our new apartment in Vienna includes in the rent a cleaner, who comes once a week. I’ve never had a cleaner before, and am probably unlikely to again, but I really appreciate and value the thorough clean the apartment gets from her. I count her as a great gift we get for the 10 months we’re here!

  12. Wow! I heart Kris. Seriously, this post made my day.

  13. I live near a group of Church sites and frequently a missionary couple is assigned to be in our branch. One couple was here for about a year and seemed to be having the time of their lives, although they had left an awful lot of their familiar lives back home in Idaho. I generally think of missionary couples as performing invaluable service, which must be a sweet return on their sacrifice for being away from family, home, friends, etc. I learned near the end of their stay that they were Maintenance missionaries–this sister literally scrubbed toilets for her missionary service. How many of us would accept that call? It is not lofty, probably few good conversion stories to tell when you get home. Yet I am sure many thousnads of people appreciated her work, even if they had no idea who did it.

  14. I actually tried to write a post like this a while back, but I couldn’t find the words. One of my best friends in the world is a cleaning lady. She loves her work, I’ve always held that she is slightly insane. On the other hand, she does not necessary love the job, you just wouldn’t believe (or maybe you would) the thoughtlessly cruel things people say to her, the assumptions they make, just because she is willing to clean their house (at $20 an hour, which is excellent in Boise). b

    On the other hand, I have huge numbers of aquantences, from church, the gym, my kid’s schools, who are the ladies who employ cleaning ladies. Which is a culture that up until recently I’m wholely unfamiliar with.

    Also, it touches on some of the overlooked difficulties that underly certain types of feminism that really bug me. (that is a terrible sentence but I find myself too lazy to fix it)

    So much of what you write here gets to the meat of the issue that I wanted to write about, but still don’t have words for. I think I’m going to have to read this post again . . . excuse me . . .

  15. Nice work, Kris. We need to do dishes together.

    I like doing housework I just don’t want my entire value to come from it. If it does, then I hate it. The housework and myself.

  16. Kris,
    Orson Scott Card touches on this issue in one of his series’s (perhaps the second book in the Ender series?). There is a planet where a few people are considered gifted if they have what sounds to us like OCD. They do some sort of seemingly meaningless task, but consider that great spiritual benefit is derived from this and it is celebrated. Perhaps Card was influence by Buddhism for this aspect of his story. I wish I could remember it a little bit more to describe for you.
    Anyway, I think that it is important to be able to “just wash the dishes.”
    The fact that this author found this advice helpful when she was a mother with young children is something I identify with. Have two young children is hard, and after having a third I looked at my life and said, “This is my life. This is what being a mother means. If I don’t enjoy each moment, that what is the point?”
    If changing a diaper, reading a story, bathing a child, fixing a meal, washing the dishes….all these things are not only responsibilities to be over and done with, they are not just burdens to weigh me down. They are opportunities to be enjoyed.

  17. Kris,
    I still maintain that it is two sides of the same coin. I think you may have got the impression that I see the two ideas at opposite ends of the spectrum- I don’t. I see what I said as what the natural conclusion is if one applies what you wrote to the perspective of people who are the domestic help. If I find value all work, including my own, then no one can tell me that they are too good to help me with my work and if they try then I don’t have to listen.

  18. Eric,
    You have shattered my faith. Up until this point, I assumed that the bowels of the General Authorities were emptied via some form of divine evacuation.

  19. I am very much in agreement with this post. I have never liked the idea of paying someone to do my housework. Something that Stephen Robinson said once when I had a class from him has stuck with me ever since. He said that cleaning was a godlike activity. Cleaning after all is the process of creating order out of chaos. And this is what God did and does on a larger scale-He organized chaotic matter. After I heard that it really made cleaning seem more meaningful. Although I still don’t exactly enjoy it.

    On a different note though, I wonder where do we draw the line Kris? Paying someone to clean is paying someone to do something that we consider drudgery and that we would rather not do. It is paying for our load to be lightened. However when we go to a restaurant instead of cooking for ourselves, and low paid food service employees wait on us, aren’t we doing the same thing? Paying for the drudgery of dinner making to be taken away?

    Have you ever been on a cruise? They are so wonderful. Yet the one things that dampens the experience is the largely international workforce. Many are from very poor countries. They wait on you hand and foot.But if you talk to them they will reveal that they work 12 hour days and it is quite difficult. I find myself kind of embarassed to be served in this way. But then sometimes I think that this a great job and oppurtunity compared to what was available where they came from. It is tough.

  20. D. Fletcher says:

    I had a woman who cleaned my apartment and did my laundry for 17 years. She finally left me, just a few months ago (she works in an office now).

    So, I’ve cleaned. Nothing to it, and there’s nothing wrong in hiring someone else to do it, either.

  21. What a great post. It reminds me of the French film from the 80’s – Diva, where the character Gorodish explains the zen of buttering a baguette and chopping onions. I used to like ironing. It was a time when I could explore my thoughts and daydreams. The iron would go back and forth. Quiet time.

    With that in mind, I’m, currently in a situation where I have full time house help. It’s a weird mixture of gratefulness and guilt and sometimes annoyance when she doesn’t do her job (i.e., shedoesn’t do it as well as I could do it myself). To ease my western guilt I remember a couple of things. 1. I think of her as my household assistant. I’m a professional and like many professionals, I have a personal assistant. She helps me get things done and makes the house run more smoothly. She is our emp[loyee just as we have an employer at work. There’s nothing denegrating about it. And 2. Although I pay her what would be considered a pretty small amount by US standards, the price is competitive here, we give her room and board, and not only are we supporting her and giving her a job that she needs, the money we pay her is also supporting her family in her home country, paying the mortgage on her house there, and helping to support her daughter’s business ventures.

    It can be hard when faced with the daily reality of being part of the haves in a world of have-nots. It can smack you in the face.

    Through all this, however, I never denegrate the work she does or think it’s below me. She only does work that I have always done in the past and I will continue to do in the future when we move from here.
    Giving someone a job is never anything to be ashamed about.

  22. I really like doing dishes btw. It’s my favorite chore.

  23. Another benefit of housework is that it provides family members with the opportunity to serve one another. I heard a speaker once (I think it was at a BYU devotional?) who lamented the fact that affluent LDS families hired out their housework and were thus deprived of daily opportunities to make sacrifices of their time for each other. According to this theory, spouses, parents, and children would thus have fewer opportunities to show their fellow family members that they love them through actual physical service, and parents/spouses often end up grasping at a false love “substitute” by throwing money/clothes/toys/flashy trips/etc. at the family member instead.

  24. Mark Butler says:

    I generally like housework. Once I get into the spirit of it, it is as enjoyable as gardening, or exercise, or any other noble labor.

  25. Our family has a cleaning person who comes weekly. The decision to do this was based on many influences. One was Brent Barlow’s book, Twelve Traps in Today’s Marriage. He talks about their miserable experience of painting their own house to save money, and the tension it caused, and how hiring a painter was the best investment for their marriage. I frankly don’t see how hiring out housework is any different than hiring a professional painter.

    Another factor is that my husband served a mission, and I later lived, in countries where it would be considered selfish NOT to hire a cleaning person, because you’d be depriving somebody of a job.

    My children absolutely do know how to clean house. Our cleaning specialist focuses on the kitchen, bathrooms, front hall and family room. Unless I request it, she doesn’t set foot in the living room or either office or the kids bedrooms, so there is plenty to do on the weekends. She also doesn’t do deep annual cleaning projects (windows, etc.). Also, she is a friend, and understands our values, so when I put a note on a stack of dirty dishes asking her NOT to touch them because a child needed to take care of them, she respected that.

    We clean the chapel twice a year and don’t think cleaning is below us in the least. We just don’t have time to do it in the typical work week.

    As to the “service” argument, we didn’t have a cleaning person with our older children and I didn’t see more frequent acts of service then, except from me:) and I never thought of it as service per se. Dad and kids still set and clear the table and do dishes.

    My cleaning person is paid a fee that is about the same as our flute teacher, so I don’t think she is being taken advantage of–and indeed, she has thanked us for the work several times.

    I don’t see any moral superiority in scrubbing one’s own floors.

  26. Great post.

    I have resisted getting any kind of cleaning help over the years–my reasoning was that I wanted my children to see me working at home to keep our place clean, and also to teach them to do it.

    Now, however, I’m swamped–homeschooling with six kids home all day; even with regular chores for all of us, there are some things I simply never get to, like gunky window tracks and dusty picture frames. So I’m thinking of hiring someone for two hours a week–and I think it will teach my children that when you need help, you get it, instead of stressing out and kicking yourself for not being able to do it all.

  27. Hmmm. I’ve been following this thread and thinking of housework, and thinking that it is more or less a good idea to clean up after ourselves, and that I would probably fell some vague sense of guilt about paying somebody to do the laundry or clean the floors. But I don’t feel guilty at all about paying to have my lawn taken care of. And it just occurred to me that I have a long list of home maintenance tasks which I would LOVE to outsource to anyone crazy enough to do them. I need to repair the rain gutters (30 feet above the ground) this weekend.

  28. Dude, the sum of all my aspirations is to make enough money never to have to do any home repairs myself.

  29. There’s a difference between not liking housework and thinking it’s beneath you. I hate housework. I envy people who enjoy it. I’m also completely puzzled by them. The idea of doing dishes and having to sit there thinking only of doing dishes sounds like torture to me.

  30. I also want to add one more thought about “outsourcing” ‘home’ work; by having my “assistant” do daily chores, it greatly increases the amount of time I have to spend with my children, rather than saying, “I can’t, I have to cook/do dishes/do this laundry” etc. I have the luxury of coming home from work, helping my daughter with her homework, playing a board game with the kids before dinner, or *gasp* going out grocery shopping for some “me time.” :-)

  31. Mark Butler says:

    Well, when I do dishes, I think of the thermal properties of liquids, and surface tension, and wettability, and those little ambidextrous soap molecules, and the most elegant symmetry I can stack / arrange the dishes in, and what principles govern the perception thereof, and so on.

    Much more interesting that way – it is just like when I drive a car, I practice polynomial interpolation, and more things no one wants to hear about (global optimization mostly).

  32. Wendell Berry wrote a book called The Hidden Wound about slavery and racism in America. In the book, he discusses, among other things, the commonly held belief that housework and work on the land (farming) are somehow less valuable than other types of work. The book changed my perceptions about all types of work and their inherent value. Even if you don’t agree with his ideas, his way of thinking about the world is so startling different from anything else that’s out there; he’s worth checking out. I’d also highly recommend his essay, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” along with everything else he’s written.

  33. I also want to add one more thought about “outsourcing” ‘home’ work; by having my “assistant” do daily chores, it greatly increases the amount of time I have to spend with my children, rather than saying, “I can’t, I have to cook/do dishes/do this laundry” etc

    Bingo. This is our primary motivation for having cleaning help.

    The other reason for us is that we cook and bake, and cooking a meal is a major part of our entertainment with friends. My husband is away a fair bit for work, and when we are all in town, we want to eat at home. We very rarely eat out.

    If we didn’t have cleaning help, I would rely on eating out/convenience foods more often, to cut down on the kitchen mess. So what we spend in cleaning fees is partially offset by lower costs for food (as well as better nutrition value).


  1. […] Having recently revealed the pleasure Bro. Russell took in scrubbing the toilet of former BYU President and current member of the Quorum of the Seventy Merrill J. Bateman, Bro. Russell kindly provided this website with a list of other activities of which he is justly proud. […]

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