This may not be a big problem for anyone else but it’s driving me mad. I share a flat with two other girls and they leave a real mess after them, in the kitchen, the fridge, the bathroom. Everyone in my family is fairly tidy, even my brother. But I’d never seen anything like these two, even though I like both of them and we have good craic. I often ask them to clean up after themselves, but they only tell me to relax! I should be writing to you only about spiritual problems I suppose, but this is driving me nuts, and maybe that's a spiritual problem. Can you suggest any way of coping with it? Fiona
Yes, going nuts could be a spiritual problem right enough. I was delighted with your question, because I had a similar problem last year and I think I learned something from it; so I'm happy to share it with you.
Every morning I pick up the trash left in the Priory grounds and the carpark by passers-by on the previous evening: tin-foil from Chinese take-aways, plastic forks, Coca Cola tins, bottles, beer cans, cigarette packets, brown paper bags…. At first I did it with bad grace, muttering to myself: ‘What kind of homes do these people come from? What if I were to throw trash into their gardens and leave empty beer cans on their doorsteps?’ Of course no matter how much I resented it, the job still needed to be done, so I kept on trucking. Then one morning, all of a sudden, it became blindingly clear to me that I myself was scattering trash around, far more noxious, in fact, than the trash left by the late-night drinkers and diners. I was spreading ill-will and irritation around, I was polluting the air…. It was a useful insight, because it set me free to go back to just collecting trash. A short time later I was able to enjoy the job. And now I even look forward to it! I am cleaning the face of nature, like a mother cleaning her child’s face. I'm grateful for the privilege. It has become a form of meditation. Looking back, I'm shocked at how that foul fog of resentment came between me and what I was doing. It achieved nothing good, it only did harm. Now I feel free. And I can see things more clearly: I see that it is only a very few people who leave us their rubbish, and I even catch myself hoping that they enjoyed their take-aways….
Many years ago a friend of mine did a project on trash in her third year in art college. As I remember, she had a fine collection of trash from the streets of Belfast. It was odd to see bottle caps, straws, pennies, sweet-papers, cigarette droppings… all cleaned up and displayed artistically on a beautifully lighted wall. It gave us a low-angle view, the underbelly of city life. Her work earned a commendation: the most unprized things won a prize! That's what artists do for us: they suggest we look again, from a different angle. Spirituality does much the same thing. It looks at everything, including rubbish, and sees it all evenmindedly. “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are” (1 Cor 1:28f). God appears to have a special interest, like my friend, in the underside of life: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27). That appears to be God's topsy-turvy logic. The best way for us to live with it, Meister Eckhart suggested, is “to take everything evenly from the hand of God.”
How could any of that help you with the mess in the bathroom, Fiona? Practically I don’t know. But if it softens the edge of your definition of trash, that's something. Describing a thing as trash is like talking about weeds. All plants are equally plants, but the ones we don’t want we call weeds; ‘weed’ is not a botanical term, it is about us and our dislikes. A towel on the floor is like a weed: it just happens to be in the wrong place. So put it in the right place. If you pick it up and put it in the laundry basket, making no judgment either about the tower or the person who left it there, you have done something useful, and you have not polluted your mind while doing it. As you leave the bathroom you know that you have done something, though it was only tiny, to make the world a better place. And you have made a determined spiritual step towards not going nuts.
I wish you the very best, Fiona.