The Common Good

Housework, Hookups, and St. Gregory of Nyssa

This past year, I’ve been working out of my house, something like a stay-at-home dad, what with the after-school hours and school holidays and such. All day, everyday – or at least whenever I get up from my desk to go to the bathroom or get a glass of water or collect the mail – I observe the messes my kids have made, the dirty dishes in the sink (or, more likely, scattered on coffee tables, the dining table or kitchen countertops), the dried mix of toothpaste and spit all over the vanity, the explosion of Legos and Polly Pockets and precious scraps of torn fabric they collect to role-play their fashion-design dreams – hundreds upon hundreds of swatches, all frayed edges and little threads perpetually freeing themselves and covering the carpet, much as dog hair would, except we don’t have a dog because I hate dog hair all over everything, and you can’t hate your daughters’ fashion-design dreams.

Housework, Diego Cervo / Shutterstock.com
Housework, Diego Cervo / Shutterstock.com

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What I have discovered, in all this mess, is that I am a selfish, lazy bastard. When I get really fed up, or just need to do something physical, I might vacuum a couple of rooms or clean half a bathroom or straighten up the kitchen or do some little household project like patch a hole in the drywall from when the toilet-paper holder fell out of the wall six months ago. But that Benedictine slogan, ora et labora, “pray and work,” the idea that drudgery points you to God? Forget it. I’ve seen beautiful portrayals of it, like in the film Of Gods and Men, how the monks wash dishes or hoe rows or mend fences without complaint, because taking care of one another is part of their calling. “Let the brethren serve each other so that no one be excused from the work in the kitchen,” states St. Benedict’s Rule. “We all bear an equal burden of servitude under one Lord.”

I don’t doubt that taking care of my family – not just earning money, but hands-dirty domestic sort of care – is part of my vocation. In fact, it’s probably the part of my calling that’s closest to monastic holiness, if I’m honest. It’s just that I find the other parts of my calling: the writing, the making music, the seminary studies – I find all of this a whole lot more interesting than scrubbing the toilet. That is to say, if I’m honest, I think my thoughts and my words and the combination of sounds I create are more important than keeping our home clean – at least, that’s the belief I act on, more often than not. Selfish, lazy bastard. I told you, didn’t I?

My wife, God bless her: She loves to do the dishes, the laundry, to sweep the floors, unclutter the girls’ bedroom, stitch my trousers, take out the trash and the recycling, and to sort through the week’s worth of mail intruding on the peace and intimacy of our dinner table. Loves it!

No, actually. Every few months, when her emotions get the better of her, and she has the courage to say what she really feels, we’ll be lying in bed and we’ll have a conversation like this:

She: “Why don’t you notice these things need to be done?”

Me: Silence

I have no excuse, really. I just think other things are more important. Or, I think I’m more important. Does this conversation sound familiar to you?

It’s just the sort of conversation the Sexual Revolution has enabled young women to put off, or even avoid altogether. In her latest article in The Atlantic, “Boys on the Side,” Hannah Rosin celebrates how today’s college girls have access to sex without the responsibilities of real relationships.

“To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture,” Rosin writes. “For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.”

Rosin cites a recent four-year sociological study of 53 co-eds’ sex lives at a state university in the Midwest:

“For an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hookups were a way to dip into relationships without disrupting her self-development or schoolwork. Hookups functioned as a ‘delay tactic,’ … because the immediate priority, for the privileged women at least, was setting themselves up for a career. … The women wanted to study or hang out with friends or just be ‘100 percent selfish,’ as one said.”

Yeah, I can relate.

By coincidence, I happened to read Rosin’s piece in the same week I read Janet Martin Soskice, a philosophical theologian at the University of Cambridge, who obviously has built the sort of successful career that drives Rosin’s archetypal young woman. Soskice is concerned with how a family might wreck not your career but your faith:

“The phrase ‘the spiritual life’ conjures up something still and luminous, turned to the future and far from our daily lives … involving long periods of quiet, focused reflection, dark churches, and dignified liturgies. In its higher reaches, it involves time spent in contemplative prayer, retreats and sometimes the painful wrestlings with God portrayed by John Donne or George Herbert. Above all, it involves solitude and collectedness. It does not involve looking after small children.”

Soskice offers a fascinating analysis of On Virginity by the early church father Gregory of Nyssa:

“He does not, as might be expected by our prurient age, condemn sexual activity,” she writes. Already Gregory and Rosin are on the same page.

“Rather,” Soskice writes, “he reserves his disapprobation for marriage, even for an ‘ideal’ marriage. The young wife will grow old and die, she may on the other hand die young in childbirth, and the child with her. Children born safely may be subject to accident, illness, and disease. You (male) may die on a business trip. A young wife is soon a widow, friends desert her, families quarrel, finances fall to pieces. In short, family life is one damn thing after another.”

“Get as far away as possible from the society of this emotional and sensual world,” Soskice quotes Gregory’s advice.

Or as, Rosin puts it, “Enter into temporary relationships that don’t get in the way of future success. … The hookup culture is … bound up with everything that’s fabulous about being a young woman in 2012—the freedom, the confidence, the knowledge that you can always depend on yourself.”

Here’s the question Soskice wants to ask, of both Gregory and someone like Rosin: Is this “self-mastery,” this sense of personal well-being uninterrupted by other people, is this what’s best for us?

“Of life’s experiences, none is so ‘unselving’ as attending to a baby whose demands are immediate, inconvenient, irrational, sometimes in explicable, and wholly just,” Soskice writes. “There is no ‘arguing’ with a baby. We need to add the spiritual discipline of attention to self-mastery. It is by being at the disposal of another that we are characteristically drawn out of ourselves and come to understand ourselves fully as selves. … To be fully human and to be fully moral is to respond to that which demands our response – the other, attended to with love.”

Even Rosin gets that something’s missing in all the hookups.

“Young men and women have discovered a sexual freedom unbridled by the conventions of marriage, or any conventions. But that’s not how the story ends,” Rosin assures us, concluding her article. “They will need time, as one young woman at Yale told me, to figure out what they want and how to ask for it. Ultimately, the desire for a deeper human connection always wins out, for both men and women.”

Her sole piece of evidence for this rosy appraisal of the situation: “Hookups haven’t wrecked the capacity for intimacy. In (the Midwestern university) survey, 74 percent of women and about an equal number of men say they’ve had a relationship in college that lasted at least six months.”

Six months is the new intimacy. Is she kidding? The honeymoon isn’t even over in six months. Try sticking it out for a few years, and you’re lying in the same bed where you make love, and it’s 3 a.m., and your spouse says she feels like a slave because you left your dirty dishes in the sink again, when you have “to respond to that which demands your response.”

Housework feels like Sisyphus, pushing that rock up the hill, and it rolls backward, over and over and over again. The dishes are clean, and then they’re dirty again. The laundry basket is empty, and then it’s full again. The stray hairs are gone from the shower, and they they’re back again.

But the real boulder is my own will – the selfishness that keeps making messes and letting someone else clean them up. A spiritual retreat can’t erase that, nor can an important career. The only thing that can change that is “the other, attended to with love.” We can have careers, and we can have retreats, but we shouldn’t confuse those with self-development.

Jesse James DeConto spent 11 years as a newspaper reporter and editor with the Xenia (Ohio) Daily Gazette, the Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald and the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. He now works as a contributing editor for Prism magazine and a regular contributor to The Christian Century. He blogs at http://jessejamesdeconto.com.

Photo: Housework, Diego Cervo / Shutterstock.com

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