An Atheist's Dilemma: When Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

Monday, November 19, 2012 | 0 Comment(s)

When I came back from living abroad in Australia the first semester of my Junior year in college, i briefly lived  with a close college friend who was a studio art major.  Briefly, as in, 2 weeks.  I then moved, as semi-scheduled, into the extra room of the senior year house of my best guy friend.  But i already digress.

Now, first some facts about this early living situation.  This woman i moved in with is still an incredibly close friend of mine.  She was also (and IS also) an incredible artist (and now also an architect) .  And finally, I was moving into an apartment that she had already been living in for 6 months.

All of these bits of flowery potpourri are just to dull the blow of what's coming next, which is the living "situation" that i returned to find.  Here I come, bags of college-ready crap in hand, to find a living room . . . . oh wait, i couldn't find the living room, because it lay there, trapped and obscured, by a cacophony of paint and life supplies.  I seriously couldn't see the floor anywhere under the thunderous mess.  As i high-stepped my way across the "living space" i would focus in on tiny little tableaus of homemaker grotesquery: Two gleaming pools of red and blue paint, purpled in the middle, being held in tiny cups made out of the shag carpet they rested on/in.  The overall feel of the apartment was one of living inside a giant piece of modern art with WET PAINT sign still hanging on it.  

I moved, because i wanted to live with "my boys".  But if I'm being completely honest with myself, i also moved to remain friends with my goddess of an artist friend.  I didn't want to have to kill her.

This story is important as it was the first, and perhaps the only time, where i found myself in a living situation that was just "too dirty" for me to be happy in.  And a lot of it was the "wet mess".   As i've said before on the blog, clothes on the floor don't bother me, cornflakes and milk on the floor, however, does.

My personal line of tidiness concerning my living space says a great deal about me as well.  If it takes a palette-like rug to phase me, i am probably messier than the average human being.  Or at least, my tolerance is higher than most.  My sensitivity to this particular measure has been skewed by years of co-habitating with a best friend who is more on the OCD side of the cleanliness spectrum.  Thus, i have felt slovenly by comparison most of my young adult life.  And now, having a wife who also finds safety in wide swatches of dusted and polished surfaces, i fear i may be the "messy one" for my adult adult life as well.  I have accepted this.

But more and more as I get older, i have found that many of the people in my figurative neighborhood have formed an altogether new relationships with cleanliness around the home.  (I am not saying that what follows is a new phenomenon, but rather that it is new that i have given it much thought).  Somewhere along the line, the cleanliness of one's house became a proxy for:

1) how together you are as a person.
2) how matured you are.
3) how well your relationship is going.
4) your mental health.
5) if you actually qualify as an adult.

This is where i have a problem with cleanliness.  Put simply, if cleanliness is next to godliness, what does that mean for an atheist?

I admit that having things in order provides a calm of organization and knowing that everything both has a place and is in it.  But i can't understand how not feeling this way is at all maladaptive.  And we aren't talking hoarders either.  If you house is cluttered, and it's all coupons, or box tops, or cats, or doomsday supplies, i encourage people to judge away.  But when i walk into my friend's mother's house in western Mass and find a great room with murals haphazardly coating the walls and piles of interesting papers and magazines stacked across old wood tables, i see beauty.  It looks like a room you would find at Hogwarts.  A room expectant of wonder and encouraging exploration.  A room pregnant with possibility.

Others would call this women a pack-rat.  The room gets plenty of natural light, and so you can see the dust that has landed on the tops of the tallest stacks of records.  The room is unclean by the standards of  respectable mothers and fathers everywhere.  Were my parents to walk in on this room in the center of my future home, they would be forced to expend great energy NOT commenting on how the room looks.

Again. I don't get it.  I mean, couldn't you imagine Gandhi not caring where he put his robes down after a few days of hunger fasting.  What about Napoleon?  You think that little shit ever picked up for himself after conquering a new land.   No way in hell.

And the Napoleon example (more-so than the Gandhi one, which was mostly meant for humor) actually gives away what i think is at the root of this bias to believe that what is clean is what is good and right.  Napoleon didn't pick up after himself because he was rich and powerful enough to have people do it for him.    Hmmmmmm.  This sounds familiar.  It sounds familiar because in the history of feeling judged about my cleanliness by folks, almost all of the "worst offenders" of person-centeric judgements based on home cleanliness have had outside help in managing the cleanliness and upkeep of their homes.  Once again, the bias come from the "haves" and is projected onto the "have-nots"

And i feel ridiculous calling myself a have-not, because of the ridiculous amount of privilege i was both born into and live amongst -- but in another way this emphasizes my point.  Even with a wife, two jobs, and a manageable sized living space, my wife and I simply don't have the extra income laying around to hire someone to dust and do the laundry for us.  I assure you that if we did, our house would always be a ton clearer.  Obviously.  But somehow it gets lost that having a personal cleaning service is so far across the privilege spectrum, that most people can't even fathom its size and shape all the way over in "trying-to-meet-their-familys'-needsville."

And that's why, when adults from privilegetown visit their kids in needsville, it almost never goes well.  "What aren't you older, making more money, and living in a style of life we've grown accustomed to?"  "Mostly because we work full time and we don't have Sally coming over on Thursdays to strip the sheets, wash the towels and vacuum the carpets."

But we don't talk like this.  We don't talk of privilege or responsibilities or priorities.  The actual conversation goes like this,  *parents scans the room* "Well, your place looks (scan around a bit more) nice.? (it is half statement half question)  *kid reading the insincerity loud and clear* "Um . . thanks Mom and Dad." (there is no thanks in his/her thanks)   And they both walk away feeling bad.  The older adults wondering where they went wrong that their child either is forced to live in "such squaller" or, even worse, chooses to live like this.   The young adult walks away wondering why he/she was just subjected to such uninvited and unnecessary insult -- and the distance of age and mutual misunderstanding somehow widens unnecesarily.

It all seems like much ado about nothing.  No one has won or lost a Nobel prize based on the number of sweatshirts they left on the floor.  I certainly haven't seen any studies linking picking up after oneself with success in computer programming (i bet we would find that more mess is actually correlated with more success in the computer sciences -- but i digress again).

I mean, does everything have to be right or wrong.  Black or white.  Does clean have to equal good?  And if so, does that leave messiness as bad by default.  Why can't we, like the dust-bunnies that have  grown into a warren behind my couch, live in that middle space between Comet and vomit.  A place where our relative neatness is just another compatibility factor like snoring, or shared extra-curricular activities.

I'm not saying we have to give a voice to mess-loving Americans, we just need the godliness of cleanliness to be more humane.

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