My hands spent a lot of time in soapy water today.
My little sister returned from a college trip to Spain earlier this week, loaded down with souvenirs for all, plenty of chocolate, and a bag of new dresses (courtesy of a monetary birthday gift from our grandparents).
Since my sister had several assignments due this week, I offered to wash her European-bought clothing. I then began rifling through the garments, looking for care labels.
The tags all boasted exotic origins — Spain, France, and India — and the fabric content was printed in wonderfully foreign words, including seda and viscosa. As I examined each dress carefully, I realized only one had a care label. Three of them were made of fabric I had never heard of.
With the help of Google Translate, I realized I was dealing with silk, rayon, polyester, and one unknown. The safest way to clean these is to wash them by hand. So, I headed to the kitchen this morning loaded down with a bag of dresses, hangers, and my laptop (for laundering tips and some music streaming).
It took me a bit over an hour. And I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
I’ve always really enjoyed housework, especially when I can take my time to do my job well. I love that when I’m finished, I always have something visible to show for it. And for the most part, it’s low-stress work that doesn’t require a lot of mental involvement, so it gives me plenty of time to think and pray.
Today as I was plunging dresses repeatedly into the sink (and humming along with Sugarland), my mind turned to the idea of menial labor. According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of menial is:
1: of or relating to servants : lowly
2a : appropriate to a servant : humble, servile
2b : lacking interest or dignity
Why is it that we divide work into such categories? Isn’t there dignity in all kinds of work, provided you do it well?
Bob Thune, pastor of Coram Deo Church in Omaha, Nebraska, took up this discussion in his recent Gospel Coalition article “What Are You Called to Do? A Theology of Work.”
Someone pointed out to me an interesting fact: the root of the English word vocation is the Latin verb voca, which means “to call.” The linguistic evidence shows that at some point in history, people thought of every type of work as a “calling.” Whether you are a minister or a mechanic, you do not work because it pays the bills, or because it’s personally fulfilling, or because it justifies the money you spent on college tuition. You work because it glorifies God.
As a woman, the subject of menial labor is a sensitive one. The culture as a whole pressures women to escape the “confines” of home and find fulfillment through their careers. We are often told that housework and diapers are beneath us. We shouldn’t settle for servile work, but pursue something with interest and dignity.
Yet, someone has to do the “menial” work. Someone has to wash the clothes, cook the food, and vacuum the floors. If we don’t do it, we have to hire out — take the clothes to the cleaners, order take-out, and call a cleaning lady. The assumption is: I’m above this sort of work, but another person isn’t.
Something in me rejects this idea, dripping as it is with false pride. It is true that some work requires specialized skill. It is true that some work requires innate talent. But it is also true that even the the surgeons and master painters need hot meals and clean homes. Society is lit up not only by its moons but also by its billions of twinkling stars.
I’m not sure where my life’s path will lead me. But I do know one thing — I will always enjoy housework. And like all work, it will bring glory to God.