Appreciating the Work We Do With Our Capable Hands
Whether you are a fan of the 1984 or 2010 versions of “The Karate Kid,” you surely recognize the Zen-like instruction that transforms a lost, defenseless kid into a disciplined, convicted young man. Mr. Miyagi is stern and steady while requiring the Kid to wipe wax on and off an old car or take a jacket from his shoulders and hang it correctly on a hook.
The Kid performs these actions over and over and over again until his body knows what to do without his mind needing to inform it. Muscle memory takes hold so completely that the Kid can transfer the movements from one context into another with ease. He can polish a car or use the upper body strength acquired to deflect blows his enemy would like to land upon him. He can balance on one foot so perfectly that he needs only one after his other leg has been badly hurt.
Once the Kid’s body has learned its moves and adapted their use, the mind is at liberty to take in higher learning. The mind appreciates the body’s health and strength and calibrates the degree of confidence and courage coursing through the body’s veins. The mind is at peace, focused upon repetitive motion, empowered by repeated successes. The mind derives satisfaction from doing one thing well and sets higher and higher goals for achievement.
So it is for men and women, but the tedium I have in mind is still done most often by women who undertake daily or at least weekly the very ho-hum, humdrum, mind-numbing work of making and keeping a clean house. We know well the transformational power of doing mundane tasks repeatedly.
Look into any sunbeam. Put your hand forth and feel the change in temperature, but as you enjoy the warmth, you also bear witness to the tiny particles that swim and dance in the light. Those particles will come to rest upon carpets, tables, and figurines held dear. Those particles must be stirred and captured frequently to avoid that patina that grows into a dull film. You must dust today, tomorrow, and tomorrow and many days thereafter all your days, and the very thought of all those cloths and circular motions once made me run for cover until, that is, I thought of the Kid.
Homemaking, like the Kid’s martial-arts training, requires practice with only the vaguest sense of what lies at the end of the work. When Mother assigned me to dust, I absolutely hated the chore and felt quite sorry for myself (I was barely in double digits, then, okay?). Not only was the task abhorrent, but Mother was quite the nag.
“Did you dust the rungs underneath the chair?” she challenged when I tried to forfeit the dust cloth. “How about the space between the uprights on the stairwell?”
I had to turn around and start again, now not just feeling sorry for myself, but feeling angry too. I wanted to give up, to quit and felt quite hopeless about ever satisfying Mother. I had no idea what was to come, of course: the satisfaction in having begun a task and completing it to the best of my ability, thereby satisfying no one but myself.
That is the real joy of work whether it is dusting, mopping, or debugging a complicated computer program. When we prove to no one except ourselves that we can undertake pleasant or unpleasant work and see it through, we find satisfaction.
This is what I wish for every young person who has ever fallen behind in school work or found himself in troubles that seem insurmountable. I wish the girls and the boys the gift of perseverance for in persevering, we overcome. Whether it is Mr. Miyagi’s example, a Mother’s nagging, a teacher’s coaxing, or a financial advisor’s “tough love,” let our children tackle tedium, commit it to muscle memory, and in the process, learn to be fulfilled even by work that may need to be performed again and again and again as we stumble forward into the unknown of the next year.