We should all seek meaning in the mundane

Enuma Okoro Feb. 26, 2024 Financial Times

Rituals and commonplace daily activities can help to sustain a sense of peace in an otherwise chaotic world.

Over the past few weeks, despite my various commitments and responsibilities, I have found myself almost aching for uninterrupted time at home doing nothing. Not a fancy vacation, not binge-watching Netflix with mint chocolate chip ice cream, not even catching up with friends and family over the phone or in person. I’ve just wanted to sink into the daily act of living, without any excited or nervous anticipation of events, without feeling pressed for time or in a rush. My mind and body have felt deeply tired and I’ve craved the repetition of days spent doing all the small regular tasks needed to maintain a healthy and ordered life.

On the one hand I think this is rooted in a desire to feel more aware of the “ordinariness” of my own life, because whenever I manage to do so I feel more gratitude for things I often take for granted. On the other hand, I think it’s connected to my sense that rituals and commonplace activities in our lives can help to sustain a sense of peace or groundedness in an otherwise chaotic world. It has got me wondering how we might all take another look at the everyday, finding meaning in the mundane.

I can’t recall the first time I saw the late 19th-century painting “Shadows” by American artist Charles Courtney Curran. But I do remember immediately thinking it was like a subtle treatise on the beauty of our mostly unspectacular lives. A brown-haired woman in a brown dress and white apron is hanging bedsheets on a line outside. The shadows of tree leaves and branches in the background are cast on the canvas of laundry like a drawing. The sunlight on the sheets is captured so well that you almost feel the warmth on your own skin and can imagine the freshness of the day. If I were to approach this painting from a different perspective I could riff about the historical context of “women’s work” and domestic “ideals”. But that’s an essay for another day. What draws me to this particular painting is how Curran, knowingly or not, has turned the most routine task of laundry into a creative encounter with nature. He has in this instance transformed a tedious activity into something we can see with fresh wonder.

Lately I’ve been trying to practise doing the laundry differently. Instead of seeing it as a chore to begin hurriedly in the slim space between other tasks, I’ve tried to slow down and focus my whole attention on sorting the clothes, loading the washing, pouring the soap, choosing the setting and shutting the machine door. It all takes less than 15 minutes, but to be present in those 15 minutes rather than rushing them can make all the difference in how stressed I might feel and how the rest of my morning goes. The washing will never stop needing to be done so how we show up to it could be a sort of meditative training ground for how we show up to a host of other unspectacular things in our lives. So often it is our intention towards a thing that determines our experience of it. Curran’s painting might perhaps even prepare us to catch some unexpected ray of beauty in the midst of our own mundane activities.

The short and thoughtful poem “Days”, written in 1953 by the English poet Philip Larkin, is an apparently simple and tender reminder that, whether we like it or not, we enact all the details and experiences of our lives through distinctive but repeating days. The monotony of days is the only option we have for living out our lives, and the lines of the poem conjure both the joys and the challenges of this reality. “What are days for?/ Days are where we live./ They come, they wake us/ Time and time over . . .” The beautiful brevity of poems can often give us much more to ponder than is on the page. Here, Larkin suggests that regardless of our status, our commitments, responsibilities and so forth, no one escapes living day by day. And I am struck by the rhetorical question with which Larkin begins, a line that invites us to consider the specificity of our own days. What do you believe your days are for?

Some of our humdrum daily tasks, that we do without much thought, are essential acts of care for other living things

The other night, as I glanced at a kitchen sink full of dishes while contemplating the essay I still had to finish before going to bed, I was tempted to put the washing-up off until the morning. But as I started to walk out of the kitchen, a sentence came to mind: “Where did we learn that we don’t have time?” I was so taken aback that I stopped and leaned back against the counter to repeat the question to myself. This time, aloud. Who taught us that we don’t have enough time?

I have a nagging suspicion that the hurriedness by which most of us have learnt to live is somewhat related to how we experience either a diminishing or an expanding sense of time. I am not naively suggesting it is an easy thing to slow down the pace of our lives or to accomplish all the things we need or desire. But I think any attempt at genuine presence to seemingly mundane tasks in a way that centres us can help shift our perspectives about what we consider valuable time, and maybe negotiate anew what it means to take care and offer care in our daily lives.

I love the 1884 work “Breton Girl Looking After Plants in the Hothouse” by Danish painter Anna Petersen. A young girl, presumably a domestic servant, tends to plants in a greenhouse. She looks less than enthused about the task, and at the moment in which we catch her she isn’t even attending to the plants. She’s holding a watering can but her gaze is somewhere in the corner, utterly disengaged from her duty at hand. This work appeals because it reminds me of how easily we disregard, or even fail to consider, that there might be something life-enhancing about the concerns of the day. I am not saying a servant girl should be ecstatic about having to water plants but rather I am wondering about my own approach to such activities. Some of our humdrum daily tasks, that we do either absent-mindedly or without much thought, are essential acts of care for other living things.

The girl in the painting is surrounded by plants that require nourishment and care to grow. What might be a tedious and repetitious task to her is a matter of life and death to those plants. And yet, as many of us discover, care for plants is in some respects reciprocal. They can reduce our stress levels, make us feel more connected to the natural world and even regulate the humidity in a room. What if we gave more consideration to this idea of mutuality, and the surprising benefits of a more centred awareness, when going about some of our daily tasks?

It leads me to one further thought, which is how we often fail to remember the gift of other people’s care for us through seemingly tedious tasks. Those who supply our food or give us medication or drive us safely from one destination to another. These everyday acts are part of what keeps us alive. Perhaps the mundane may not seem so ordinary, or unworthy of attention, when we think of it in these ways.

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