Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Tidying Up The Mess

Mar 26, 2017

On my recent birthday, to calm my frustrations about aging and about a broken laptop, I treated myself to the purchase of a new vacuum cleaner. My new friend and automated butler, a light, agile machine, immediately began helping me to wage my relentless campaign against dirty carpets, consistent with my neurotic distaste for chaos.  My kids laughed at me that I did not need to replace our aging upright, whose broken bag compartment hatch was making it an incompetent partner in dirt battles; “Dad,” they chortled derisively, “Anytime an appliance breaks, why do you always find some justification for buying a new one instead of just fixing the old one?”

Unlike my impudent progeny and that old upright, my new vacuum does not talk back to me or challenge my wisdom. He practically leaps with a gazelle’s grace behind me as I push forward like a Sherman tank onto the worn carpets that cover almost every floor of our home, then into the corners and the meeting points between the carpet’s edges and the scuffed, humble floor moldings.  I yank him behind me and he follows with soldierly alacrity.  I demand that he give consistent, repeat performances of super-mechanical strength in our efforts to eradicate the enemy schmutz threatening the fortress that is my modest Albany home.  He complies, a dutiful and loyal infantryman. I am satisfied with my new conscript.

My new vacuum is the latest in my love affair with the powered vacuum cleaner, a machine with roots in early twentieth century England. As an anxiety-distracted teenager living in a messy, often disorganized house, I appointed myself the family vacuum-er, a title I held even during my trips back home during post-semester breaks from college.  Dirt on our carpets exacerbated my constant feeling that I was swimming in turbulence, and it bothered me to think of how humiliated we would be if guests came by, only to discover the truth that we lived in what looked to me like squalor.  Even now, when my carpets start to look littered or I am feeling jittery and edgy, I take to vacuuming.  I default to the soothing rhythms of the suctioning and the motor whirr, like a child retreating to his blanket and thumb at the end of a bad day. Too many people self-medicate their emotional stress with drugs and alcohol.  I push my vacuum around when I need to go to my happy place. The junk all over my floors is swallowed up by my mechanical knight-in-shining armor, restoring them to a pristine simplicity and order; this reassures me that my house is still safe for home hospitality and that the world, at least my four walls within it, is still intact. 

My dance with my vacuum within those four walls contrasts so harshly with the clumsy human stomp through reality, which too often leaves pieces of the planet a disaster.  There is no vacuum to tidy up the messes that we leave behind us, no simple mechanism for neatly sucking up the debris of our dumbest, darkest impulses.  I fear those charismatic populists let loose upon the world who promise easy-clean solutions and policies to fear-filled masses looking for a Big Daddy or Mommy to drain the swamps, clean out the chaos, make the filth go away.  Ever-confident of their mission to go to war with what is monstrous, they recklessly put all of us at risk for too easily labeling others as monsters, thus becoming monsters ourselves.

I highly recommend the vacuum as wonderful therapy for your own confrontations with anxiety-provoking pandemonium.  Yet outside, in the wider home of our world, we should be strenuously vigilant to avoid reacting to messy human complexity with simplistic, "just-suck-up-the-dirt" thinking.  We cannot allow our search for solutions to our most pressing concerns to be hijacked by the natural impulse to view people and problems as if everything merely existed in a vacuum.   

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, New York.

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