The other day I cleaned my bathtub. Newsflash, right? I do my own housekeeping, I live alone, and some chores I let go longer than others. I’m not a slob. My place is orderly enough. The basics get done on a semi-regular basis, but housekeeping isn’t high on my list of favorite activities.
If I let something go too long, though, I start feeling I’m not on top of my life. Deferred maintenance is its own punishment. It builds up, nags, and finally indicts. I can put it off only so long, and then I have to do something about it. I reached that point with the tub last week. The shower curtains held me back. They get in the way of scrubbing the tub. So I threw them in the laundry. No more excuses.
Down on my knees, scrub-a-dub-dub. Not so bad. Then the fixtures, then the grout between the tiles. I even cleaned the dust off the window sill and sash.
A shower is a tiny room unto itself where we conduct an important ritual of self-improvement. We come out of the shower better than we went in. So cleaning the place where we get clean is fitting and proper.
Afterward, admiring my cleansed ablutions chamber, I experienced the wave of well-being that washes over me whenever I finally tackle a too-long-delayed chore. I call it the “virtue rush.” Which led to an epiphany:
The shortest path to self-esteem is cleaning your bathtub.
I was on top of my game again, or closer to it anyway. I felt better about myself. Not great about myself. Pride is a leap too far. We live in a self-esteem-starved culture, afflicted by chronic, compensating hyperbole. We shout that we’re “great” as if to say so makes it so, even though we know better. I’ll settle for better. It’s the bridge that gets us to the other side. Clearing that first hump started the dominoes toppling and soon my entire bathroom was presentably clean.
The Hippocratic Oath famously advises: “First, do no harm.” Surely, next comes: “Make it better.”
As always, I thought, “This feels so good. Why don’t I do it more often?” But that’s beside the point. The point is: doing it is the shortcut to self-esteem.
I used to pay someone to come in once a month and give my place the once-over, but that wasn’t as satisfying. Doing it myself is better, in spite of my endless wrestling match with inertia. Doing something where you can actually see the result reminds me to redouble my efforts to make things better in the rest of my life. This, of course, has wider application.
Donald Trump wanted to “Make America Great Again” and succeeded … in making it worse.
Joe Biden wants to “Build Back Better.” I’ll take “make it better” over wishful thinking and “great” salesmanship any day. Take a sad song, the Beatles sang, and make it better. You can’t get to great without first making it better. The doable isn’t so insurmountable. To paraphrase a popular adage, don’t let great be the enemy of better.
The long march of human history has been all about gradual improvement. Steven Pinker makes a convincing case in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, that this is precisely our story, in spite of occasional downturns and backslides. Homo Sapiens has shown the wisdom of incremental bettering, even though in every era human beings wailed and gnashed their teeth that things were getting worse. Maybe that very anxiety is what drives us to make things better. We’re certainly experiencing high anxiety right now.
But that’s a long way from my bathtub. The point is not to clean your bathtub. The point is to make small changes for the better, and never stop. Pick your bathtub, i.e. the dreaded chore that undermines your self-esteem. It might be making your will, or getting help with your finances, or making that doctor’s appointment to address something keeping you up at night, or reaching out to an alienated friend, or getting that broken thing fixed, whatever is broken in your life. A family, for instance.
Or voting — vote for better over B.S.
The season we’re in right now is the story of small beginnings. Look what came of all that — and look what needs to be fixed. Take a sad Christmas song and make it better.
Trust me, you’ll feel better about yourself.
Next up: the refrigerator.
The less said, the better.