Wanting to Do the Dishes
Life isn't about fulfilling superficial wants. It's about finding purpose in meaningful work.
One of my earliest memories is of my mother's wrinkly hands. Wrinkled not from age, but from water, soaking in suds, washing the dishes.
After a meal, there was never time to waste. The dishes didn't sit in the sink. Not unless they needed to soak, of course.
For the longest time, I never understood how she could be so diligent. Even after the longest day, there was never a “maybe tomorrow.” Never an excuse or complaint. Not a word about not wanting to do them. No matter the occasion, the dishes always got done.
Yet, for so many people, so much of the time, the dishes don’t get done. They always sit. There’s always a reason to delay. Constant excuses turn to passive-aggressive complaints that inevitably lead to a lot of tension and surprisingly big arguments. Our relationships end up being undermined by something that, on the surface, seems so trivial.
In The Breakup, during the breakup, after Vince Vaughn fails to do the dishes before a dinner party, Jennifer Aniston yells, “I want you to want to do the dishes!” She’s frustrated because, for her, doing the dishes is a sign her boyfriend cares.
Instead, Vinny responds, “Why would anyone want to do the dishes?” He misses the point entirely.
My mom didn’t do the dishes because she wanted to. She did them because she wanted to show her kids each day that she cared for them. She wanted to prove to them that they were loved. She wanted her kids to grow up in a house where the dishes were always done. That meant something to her. That mattered.
Too often we allow our lives to be ruled by superficial wants—what we feel like doing in the moment. We ask ourselves what we’d like to be doing in the short term, on the surface, rather than truly figuring out what we want in the long term, deep down.
Because deep down, we want many of the same things. Good health and happiness. Close friends and a tight-knit community. To love and be loved. To care and be cared for. For our lives to mean something. For our actions to matter.
Yet, instead, we get caught up chasing fleeting fancies, seeking instant gratification, constantly asking ourselves what we want to do right this second. That’s a superficial question with a superficial answer that leads to superficial living.
At the end of a long, good life, no one ever says, “I’m glad I never did anything I didn’t feel like doing in the moment.” They say the opposite. They say they’re glad they showed up, did what they knew was good for themselves in the long run, put in the work.
My mom raised five kids. She got the groceries, cooked the meals and did the dishes. She removed stains, matched socks and folded laundry. Drove to soccer games, tended to cuts and scrapes, helped with homework, attended PTA meetings, and tucked us in each night. Day in and day out, she showed up and did the work of raising five kids, not out of a sense of obligation, not begrudgingly, but because deep down she wanted to do her part in raising the next generation well. She wanted her kids to grow up knowing how much she cared.
And honestly, some days that job was thankless. It didn’t pay well. Didn’t come with a fancy title or a corner office. Society still fails to place the value it should on raising kids, and God knows we were not always the most grateful bunch. I’m sure there were many days when she would’ve rather been anywhere else, doing anything else.
But I’m also sure that, looking back, she’s glad she wasn’t anywhere else, doing anything else. That she’s glad she spent much of her life raising five kids, doing exactly what she wanted to do. If you asked her right now, I’m sure she would tell you that raising them has been an enormous source of happiness, strength, connection, hope, meaning and purpose. That raising them has contributed to a life well-lived.
She may not have always felt like doing the dishes in the moment, but that was never the point. For her, not letting the dishes sit in the sink was just one more way she could let her kids know how much she cared. Enough to do the work.
There was a time when I would argue with my wife about doing the dishes, until I realized I was being Vince Vaughn instead of my mom. Until I realized that doing the dishes was an opportunity to show my wife how much I cared. That whether or not I felt like doing them wasn’t the point. That asking whether I felt like doing them or not was a dumb, surface-level question. That somewhere deeper, I wanted to be the guy who cares enough to make sure the dishes always get done.
Now I am.
Deep down we all want more meaning in our lives. We want what we say and do each day to matter. We want to be a force for good in this world.
And yet, we squander daily opportunities to show up, do the work and make a difference. We go searching for big moments on a large scale, when we should start small, with the task at hand. We let society tell us that doing the dishes and folding the laundry and caring about our loved ones isn’t valuable, when we know nothing could be further from the truth. When we know deep down that caring for each other is exactly the work we need to be doing right now. It’s exactly what we’re missing. It’s exactly what we need.
Quit asking what you feel like doing. Quit telling yourself that you don’t want to do the dishes.
When I close my eyes I can still see the suds, the water wrinkles, the hands of a woman who cared.
Thanks, Mom, for doing the dishes. It meant the world.