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On Cleaning

A discussion of cleaning must begin with the fact that we are not angels. That is, we are not purely spiritual beings but have a physical nature as well, and so our physical environment both reflects and affects us. It’s the point about beautiful art, beautiful architecture, beautiful music—and about cleaning. 

I define cleaning as restoring things to where they ought to be and how they ought to be. Because we live and work with others, that “ought” has a social aspect, and so cleaning is a matter of charity. Cleaning reflects us and affects us. 

Keeping things clean shows more than just whether we are personally of an orderly or disorderly temperament. It also reveals whether we are considerate or inconsiderate, appreciative or unappreciative. Whether it’s candy wrappers on the ground, a locker stuffed with clothes, books, and papers, a kitchen sink filled with dirty dishes, or a bathroom sink coated with toothpaste and shaving stubble, leaving things a mess is inconsiderate. It means you are too lazy to take a minute (if that) to clean up after yourself and you expect someone else to do it for you. Even if a particular room, desk, or cubicle is your “own” (which is rarely, if ever, the case), how you treat it exposes your attitude to those who must live and work by it and with it. 

Keeping things clean also reveals your appreciation of and gratitude for others. How a teenager keeps his room, how a student treats a classroom, how an employee cares for his place of work, says much about his opinion of his parents, his school, and his employer. Tools left out to rust, clothes left on the floor to stink up a room, toys scattered here and there to be tripped over and broken, all show you really don’t care for them, because to care for them means to take care of them. By caring for them, you show gratitude to those who have provided them. It shows you appreciate others because they won’t have to waste time looking for things you didn’t put away properly or clean things you left dirty. 

Messiness is tinder for family brushfires. A bad day at the office can turn into a row with the kids when mom or dad comes home and trips over a lacrosse stick or sees a half-eaten sandwich left on a ketchup-encrusted plate in the living room. 

It reveals how you view your work. After almost thirty years of teaching, I’ve come to the conclusion that I could pretty well give a student’s grade for the quarter after about two weeks without having to check another assignment or grade another test. All I have to do is review his assignment notebook, look at his desk, go through his backpack, and inspect his locker. If I could examine his bedroom at home I wouldn’t even have to do that. I suspect the same is true in work after the school years. 

Now I admit I like cleaning. Though when I say that, it’s like saying I like playing golf; I don’t do it as often as I would like to, and I rarely do it as well as I could. But I like scrubbing floors. I like washing, drying, and ironing clothes, and then putting them away, neatly folded. I enjoy wiping a counter until it shines. I savor the dusting of a room, the vacuuming of a carpet, the scouring of a sink, and the sweeping out of a garage. I relish the scrubbing, toweling, and stacking of dishes. The tidying of a car gives me pleasure. Purging a drawer of its debris gives me delight. And why not? Cleaning is like cooking a delicious dinner: you can do it for yourself yet give pleasure to others at the same time. Its effects are felt more than noticed. 

That’s the second aspect of keeping things clean. It not only reflects who we are, but it also affects who we are. A clean room is a calm room. There’s a sort of “environmental sincerity” about the place. You’re not wondering what’s lurking under the bed or hiding in the closet. You’re not worrying if you can find something because you know it’s where it should be. You can relax on the sofa without the dread of finding a petrified sock under the pillow. 

Keeping things clean shows a sense of detachment, simplicity, and poverty of spirit. This is because keeping things clean entails purging. It means going through drawers, closets, attics, lockers, garages and getting rid of all the “stuff” that causes your home high blood pressure. The catharsis and liberation you feel after a good ransacking of the house is akin to a good confession. Not only is the physical environment more pleasing, but you’ve also unchained yourself from many things. You really do, in a sense, get your life back again. It can be difficult; we’re all sentimental to an extent. But life is not static, and we’re all headed to a place where “you can’t take it with you.” 

Cleaning can be difficult because it requires the most difficult of mortifications: the small, daily effort. The thirty seconds it takes to put away a book, the one minute it takes to wash your dishes, the five minutes it takes to hang up your clothes each day can be much more arduous (and much more profitable) than giving up chocolate for Lent. 

Here are three tips on cleaning. They’re nothing revolutionary, but they’ve helped me. 

  1. Have a place for everything and put everything in its place. Putting labels on drawers and shelves can help, especially for children. Where do the socks go? Where do we put the sports equipment? On what shelf go the school books and on what shelf the other books? What drawer is for pens and pencils and what drawer for rubber bands and scissors? When we don’t know where things go, we stuff (there’s that word again) them into the nearest place, which is usually the wrong place. 
  2. PIU, PIA, DIN, DIP. This stands for “Pick It Up; Put It Away; Do It Now; Do It Properly.”
    • Pick It Up. The candy wrapper on the sidewalk; the pencil on the floor; the hoodie in the corner; pick it up! It doesn’t matter if it’s your responsibility or not, just pick it up because it is not supposed to be there. And don’t leave things—your backpack in the hallway—for someone else to pick up for you. 
    • Put It Away. Where? See #1. If not there, put it in the trash. If there is no place for it, and you don’t think you should throw it away (e.g., a cell-phone), take it to someone responsible (e.g., the front desk, a teacher, a parent). 
    • Do It Now. “Later” is the mantra of mess. Put away your jacket now. Put away your books now. Put away your tools now. Later there will be twice as much to put away, and you’ll feel half as inclined to do it. One minute now saves ten minutes later. 
    • Do It Properly. Clothes folded neatly. Books stacked upright. Silverware the right way in the right slot in the right drawer. Remember the saying: If you don’t have time to do it right now, when will you have time to do it again? 
  3. Set regular times and dates for purging. 
  • Go through your backpack, briefcase, or purse each day when you get home. Take out the permission slips, the less than stellar tests to be signed, the pens that no longer work, and the credit card receipts that end up in the blackhole of “Where did I put it?” Obligations are met, records are kept, and you won’t be carrying around as much. 
  • Go through your clothing seasonally, taking out and storing what won’t be needed in the coming months and putting in what will. Sports apparel, overcoats, heavy sweaters, lightweight suits, etc., can take up a lot of space and make necessary clothing harder to find. This can also help you see what needs to be mended or dry cleaned and what can be thrown away or donated. 
  • Go through “outlier areas”—sheds, attics, basements—seasonally. The idea is the same as above. What is needed? What can be thrown away? What needs to be repaired? 
  • Move once a year. No, not really; but once a year pretend that you are. The entire family goes through the whole house as though you had just bought a smaller one. What do we really need? What is taking up space although we no longer use it? Dishes, appliances, furniture, files, sentimental what-nots that someone else may want or that you need to part with. You will find that your present house now has about twenty-five percent more square footage, and you’ll have much less stress when you do have to move. 

We may consider as quaint the expression “Cleanliness is next to godliness”; but is it really so far-fetched? I’m not saying the Felix Ungers or Marie Kondos of this world have an inside track to Heaven, but I cannot recall any person I would consider as holy who was not also at least tidy. Many scholars find deep theological meaning in Our Lord’s having the disciples pick up the crumbs after feeding the multitude. Couldn’t it be that He just didn’t want to leave a mess? After He rose from the dead, He folded the burial shroud neatly; a small sign, perhaps, but one that had significance for the apostles. They recognized His presence in a small matter of order. 

As I said at the beginning, we are not angels. Our attention to our surroundings is a great indicator of who we are and what we think of others. It’s a good place to start if we want to improve ourselves in those areas. 

About the Author

Robert Greving

Latin, English

Robert Greving has been a member of the faculty at The Heights since 1999. Mr. Greving served five years in the U.S. Army J.A.G. Corps.  Originally from North Dakota, Mr. Greving earned a B.A. in history at Louisiana State University.

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