How to Clean the House like a Philosopher

There are few tasks as mundane, dull, and infuriatingly time-consuming as having to do household chores: to collect and wash socks covered in dust bunnies, (attempt) to scrub the mold living between shower tiles, or peel some ancient fruit off the floor behind the couch. Messes are endlessly creative in the ways in which they present themselves, forcing us to wonder if we–or the people we live with–are still children. And there seems to be no avoiding them. Procrastinating only makes them worse, and it would seem that there is no way to enjoy cleaning up after ourselves, so we should get it over with as soon as possible.

I am not going to suggest that a high school janitor’s job is a delight—but I would like to suggest that housecleaning, with the right approach, becomes an art, an expression of love, and a form of gift-giving.

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First, put aside “getting it over with.” Assign yourself a few hours, or even a day, to clean whatever part of the house you have decided to tackle. Perhaps start with a room that you use often—let’s say it’s the bedroom. Be generous and realistic with the time you give it, and put off all other chores or tasks until after it is done. Setting a timeframe, and forcing yourself to focus on one task, is quite liberating in a world buzzing with distractions.

Then, indulge yourself. Put on your favorite music, or play the audio for that online course you’ve been wanting to listen to. Give your mind something to contemplate while your hands work. Get yourself a cup of something nice to drink, wear your comfortable clothes, and get started.

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Try not to think of cleaning this particular room as trying to eliminate a mess. Imagine you are discovering the home within the room—you are creating a space in which you want to live. Toss trash and things you don’t need, donate the under-the-bed shoes you never wear. As you carve through the clutter or dust bunnies, the space begins to breathe and open up, and the cleanliness is inspiring. Try not to get consumed by every spot and stain; perfection is not the point. Let your mind wander as you work, allow yourself to give attention to and become absorbed in your solitary thoughts. The product of your work is cleanliness, but it is acquired through a meditation of sorts, not unlike the way monks weave prayer ropes to access a state of deep concentration and thought. A practical end is achieved through personal and therapeutic means.

A home is a place where you belong. It is a space that knows you and welcomes you back. As you finish vacuuming and begin to organize the clutter, arrange your belongings and perhaps even furniture in a way that makes the space comfortable to maneuver. Organizing doesn’t mean placing everything in one box in a corner or banishing things you use often on a high shelf. Don’t place a sharp-cornered desk by the door. Do keep the tissue box or your glasses case on the bedside table. Even if you have a very small bedroom, make room for open spaces—they make the room feel larger, less cluttered, and create a sense of serenity. Outside the home is a world of chaos and loneliness. Within, calm and belonging.

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If you live with others, you will likely know their habits and how to best create a home for them as well. This, I believe, is how housekeeping transforms into a form of gift-giving or an expression of love. Your intimate awareness of the needs and ways of those close to you allows you to tailor the space to them, to make a room or house that embraces them. You know where he likes the plug extension because his laptop charges on the left side, but also how he’s always tugging at it to get it closer to the desk. You know how she never puts the guitar back in the case because she uses it so often, and would rather hang it on the wall. You are uniquely positioned to organize and adjust the space to these habits, to make the simple, every day motions of your loved ones easier.

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It is extremely satisfying to use a room you have just cleaned and organized. It is even more wonderful to come home to a room already neat and ready to be enjoyed, with all your favorite things in their best possible place. A homey room is sometimes the most needed gift of all, to yourself or those you love.

But, because this is an art, don’t forget the finishing touches. You can rearrange the photos on the wall, illuminate a lonely corner with the lamp that was gathering dust, or brighten the bathroom with a houseplant. Or write a nice quote and stick it to the corkboard above the desk. Then, at last, your masterpiece complete, sit back and admire. Take a bath, read a book, and allow yourself well deserved pleasure and satisfaction.

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I recommend we all try this “philosophical house cleaning” sometime. Obviously, often one just has to take out the trash and not philosophize over it.* But on a day when you have time off, and the house needs to be cleaned, challenge yourself to attempt it. Living as a philosopher does not always mean cloistering oneself in a study or classroom to study the greats–sometimes it means finding ways to transform the ordinary into the meaningful. You might be surprised how delightful cleaning the house can become.

*A few modern appliances can help take the mindless grunt work out of cleaning. The invention of the laundry machine, dishwasher, and Roomba, for instance, eliminate monotonous chores so that you can focus on the more joyful and creative aspects of the home.

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