A Poem for Dish Washers
Muck, mayonnaise, and murky waters
Stain the stack in the sink.
I wish I didn’t have to get through it all,
One slow scrub at a time.
But wading through the washing,
Something wells up in me.
My wife Katie and I know a local potter named Tim who makes bowls, mugs, luminaries, garden planters, and other sundry dishes. A few of his works grace our home, including the bowls in the photo above. They bring a touch of beauty to the domestic environment.
Although Tim’s bowls are dishwasher safe, Katie and I do not own a dishwasher. We wash these handmade wares by hand, like all our other dishes.
As I glove up and squirt dish soap onto our plates from IKEA, it’s easy to pine for the convenience of a dishwasher. But with Tim’s bowls, it somehow seems appropriate to give them special care. It’s an almost comic-poetic moment: “Righteousness and peace kiss each other; handmade bowls and hands for washing meet each other.”
We care more about Tim’s bowls than the rest.
[This week we continue our series of Work Meditations. Check out our other posts on faith and work for more resources on living an integrated Christian life. Subscribe to get the next post in the series in your inbox.]
It makes me pause and ask: Why do we care more about these dishes? What makes them so valuable to us?
These are good questions to ask. Our love for Tim’s bowls will give us some clues about what makes work matter.
Money Keeps the Score
But these clues are easy to ignore. More common metrics for determining the value of work are ready at hand. CNN founder Ted Turner once reportedly quipped, “Life is a game. Money is how we keep the score.”
Although we might not put it that baldly, some version of that idea has a place in our imagination. Money is the scoreboard—if not for life as a whole, at least for the work we do.
Using money as a scoreboard is attractive because money is measurable. Many things in life, like beauty and goodness, are hard to hang a number on.
The argument could be made that money is an appropriate scoreboard for work because of all the things that money allows you to do. Money is power.
But if we evaluate our work only in terms of the money we take home from it, we run into some problems.
Whose Work is Inferior?
Our first problem with the money scoreboard is that it leads us to judge people as inferior who don’t make as much money as we do.
When I worked at a mortgage company, I was once copied on an email where one of the senior loan officers was complaining about a coworker’s work ethic. He wrote, “If she doesn’t change her act, she’s going to be flipping burgers.”
This prophecy about the coworker’s work life was clearly shaded with contempt. But notice what the terms of contempt were: the specter of doing minimum-wage service work. Flipping burgers. This loan officer clearly did not have much respect for that kind of work, or for the people who do it.
It’s easy to imagine that he looked at his paystubs for the month and felt good about his score. But what was that way of thinking doing to his soul?
Contrast this attitude with the genuine curiosity of Fred Rogers about how people make shoes. He looks at the details of the assembly line workers’ tasks and asks about them:
“What are those men doing?”
“What is that woman doing?”
“She really works carefully, doesn’t she? I wonder if she ever thinks about all the people who might be wearing a pair of the shoes she’s helped to make.”
Mr. Rogers is using a different scoreboard. Mr. Rogers’ scoreboard works for Tim’s bowls, too. More on that in a moment.
Our second problem with the money scoreboard is that it leads us to judge our own and our loved ones’ unpaid work as inferior.
Take doing the dishes. Sadly, I do not get paid anything for making the glasses sparkle and the bowls gleam. Wouldn’t that be nice, if we still got an allowance for doing our chores as grown-ups?
In place of an allowance, there’s the currency of domestic love. When I get home from an exhausting day and see that Katie has beat me to doing the dishes, it’s a gift.
It’s that much more of a gift because we don’t have a dishwasher. She had to take each cup, plate, spoon, and fork in her hands and scrub to get them clean.
For us, so much of marriage is bound up in these little acts of service. I wonder about wealthy couples, who can hire out the cleaning and the yard work. Do they get enough opportunities to do the little things that count for each other?
Tim’s bowls and Mr. Rogers’ curiosity and the domestic service of dish-doing all point the way to a different way of thinking about the value of work.
Mr. Rogers wondered if the shoe factory worker ever thought about the people who would wear the shoes. His wondering shows what he’s paying attention to: Not whether the factory worker is making an impressive wage, but how her work serves other people.
So that’s one way we can value work: Not just in terms of what it puts in our bank account, but in terms of what it puts in the world.
Even humble, unimpressive work can contribute to the common good of human society. I’m extremely grateful for the sanitation workers who hauled away my trash this morning. Just imagine what life would be like without them. (Indeed, on occasion sanitation workers have had reason to remind cities of what that world is like.)
Now, that form of value can also be measured or counted: How many shoes got made? How many bins of trash got hauled away? But some things that our work puts in the world are not so countable.
Tim’s bowls put beauty into our home. How much beauty? Three bowls’ worth, I suppose. But “units of beauty” aren’t really a thing. In Dead Poets Society, literature teacher Mr. Keating tells his students to rip out the textbook page that tries to reduce poetic greatness to a math equation. Rightly so.
The real problem with the money scoreboard is how much it doesn’t measure. Many of the things that matter most in life are immeasurable.
Another way of saying the same thing is that some things don’t have a price.
You could consider a price for certain types of work. What would it cost Katie and me to hire someone else to do the dishes? But you can’t put a price on the love that we’re building by doing them for each other.
I paid Tim a certain price for the bowls, but that number doesn’t describe the value of their beauty in our home.
The eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant said that certain things can’t be priced. Those things have something else, instead of a price: dignity.
Kant writes, “for something to be an end in itself, then it doesn’t have mere relative value (a price) but has intrinsic value (i.e. dignity).” The value is intrinsic; it’s part of the thing itself.
The shoe factory workers have dignity.
The sanitation workers have dignity.
Tim’s bowls have dignity.
Doing the dishes has dignity.
There’s something transcendent, something beautiful, something that matters, about all these kinds of work. Something that can’t be captured in the zero sum calculations of practicality, but that’s quite at home with the practical necessities of life. Something that comes from God.
Wherever I go in the world of work, I want to keep my eyes open to that immeasurable, intrinsic value, that priceless worth, that dignity.
Reflect and Practice
Are there types of work you have been tempted to judge as inferior?
What is the scoreboard you use to determine the value of someone’s work?
Like Mr. Rogers, practice curiosity about the work experience of someone whose work doesn’t often receive attention. Finish these sentences:
“I wonder if she ever thinks about . . .”
“I wonder if he ever thinks about . . .”