I have always hated making my bed. It’s a funny thing to hate, because making a bed really isn’t a particularly terrible task. When you make a bed, you just shake out and smooth your sheets and your blanket. Pretty simple. You don’t have to get your hands dirty, you don’t have to exert much physical effort at all, and it only takes a few minutes. Why on earth would I hate such an innocuous task? And yet I did. All through my childhood, I despised making my bed. I never managed to clearly articulate to my mother precisely why I hated making my bed. She just didn’t seem to grasp the dreadful monotony of it, the endless cycle, the futility. Making my bed always felt like labor lost, like pointless effort expended on a black hole of blankets. Why did I feel this way? Because no matter what I did, no matter how many times I made it, I would always have to make it again. A bed is made only to be unmade. Making your bed isn’t a task; it’s a way of life.
I wasn’t completely against the idea of making my bed (like I said, it’s a fairly innocuous task), but I never could find a compelling reason to bother. The actual process I didn’t mind, as long as I could think my way into some frame of mind in which the process had purpose, so that the task could gain shape, form, and direction. As it happens, people frequently did give me such purposes, if I only I would accept them. I was told that my room would feel more homey and comfortable if my bed was made, that I would sleep better in a made bed, and that I would accomplish more if I started off the day by making my bed. These were all good reasons to make my bed, yet I wasn’t satisfied by any of them. I suppose all along I wasn’t looking for any old reason or purpose to make my bed; I was looking for a very specific kind of reason.
All those good outcomes people told me about had a problem: they only last until you inevitably sleep in your bed again. You may sleep better and enjoy your room more, but this only lasts a day and then you have to do it all over again. Every day, over and over, you have to keep making your bed to keep reaping these rewards. There is no lasting benefit to making your bed, because the benefit is made to be undone each night. I didn’t realize at the time, but I couldn’t stand my work being undone. I wanted a lasting sense of accomplishment, but there is no lasting accomplishment when you make your bed. The rewards are transient, and you have to keep working to keep reaping them. Unless I was really accomplishing something that endured, I just didn’t think making my bed was worth it.
Although I can now wax quite eloquent on the futility of bedmaking, I didn’t really know why I hated making my bed until very recently (a few weeks ago, as it happens). The epiphany struck, of all places, in my phenomenology class. I have found many strange answers in philosophy classes, but none on so mundane and so profound a subject as making my bed. I suppose if it were going to happen anywhere, it would happen in a phenomenology class. More than any other movement or method, phenomenology seeks to study our ordinary, everyday existence as living, embodied beings in the world. Beings who make their beds.
We were talking about Hannah Arendt. You may know her as the brilliant political theorist who wrote the famous work “The Banality of Evil,” but before she explained the actions of totalitarian governments, she wrote brilliantly on phenomenological themes. In a lecture titled “Labor, Work, Action,” Arendt discusses the contemplative and the active life, examining what it means to act. I was instantly hooked, since I have treated these themes elsewhere and even made them the study of my last blogpost. In her lecture, she tries to upend the historical hierarchy between the contemplative and the active life, arguing that we have mistakenly tried to place the theoretical above the practical. She claims, “the active life … is not only what most men are engaged in but even what no man can escape altogether.”[i] Contemplation depends upon activity to even be possible. While historically people may have valued the active life solely because it supports the contemplative life, Arendt believes that the active life has value in itself, that activity is the more primordial way we engage in the world, and all contemplation is in itself a kind of activity. While this is all very interesting, and I’d love to talk about it more, it doesn’t have much to do with making my bed, so let’s skip to the more relevant information: her discussion about labor and work.
Labor and Work
Arendt distinguishes labor from work. If her use of the word “labor” conjures up for you images of Marx, it should. Arendt is dealing with labor in a very Marxian way. Labor is the biological travails of subsistence. From birth until death, the body must toil to survive—constantly producing and consuming goods. She says, “labor produces … consumer goods, and laboring and consuming are but two stages of the ever-recurring cycle of biological life.”[ii] The result of this labor is merely continued survival, which requires additional labor to sustain. Thus, labor is a constant circle (I make my bed, then I use it and must make it again, ad infinitum), ending only with death. While there is never an end to labor, there is what Arendt calls an “inherent fertility of human labor” which allows some to escape the cycle.[iii] In other words, although we never stop needing to produce goods to consume, we can produce more goods than we need at any given moment. Accordingly, a few can live off of the labor of others, liberated from the menial tasks of subsistence (are you seeing Marx rear his head here?).
While labor is in many ways necessary, menial, and toilsome, Arendt argues that it is not a solely unpleasant activity. On the contrary, she argues that labor “corresponds to the condition of life itself,”[iv] and accordingly takes part in the simple pleasure of living. There is joy and contentment merely in daily toil and rest—in the ongoing process of living. The purposeless pleasure and toil of labor differs markedly from the brief sense of satisfaction and accomplishment found in work. Work does not create objects for consumption, but objects for use. When we make them, they are not made to go away, the way the products of labor are. Work, then, produces objects that are durable—that are meant to last, in a way that food, soap, and toothpaste are not.
Live, Sleep, Repeat
Are works better than labor because they aren’t made to be consumed? I think I must have thought so as a child, because I couldn’t value making my bed unless I could feel a real sense of accomplishment, as if I’d finished something. I wanted making my bed to be a work. I wanted it to have a start and an end, and I wanted that fleeting sense of satisfaction. But Arendt forced me to realize something: most of life is labor. I kept thinking life was about work, but it isn’t. I suppose I thought that because works can be so satisfying. Every now and again we make something that lasts, at least for a little while, and we think we have really accomplished something. Admittedly, eventually all works crumble, but they have a clear moment when they are finished, when they have accomplished something, and they announce to the world, “I am complete! Admire me!” The value of the work is in the finished project, and it announces itself as clear as day, but the value of labor is not in a single instance (the instance that it is complete) but is inherent in the endless cycle.
Some people try to make of their life a work. They want to leave their mark, to leave a legacy, to have that moment when they can shout “I am fulfilled! I’ve accomplished something! Admire me!” I suppose there is nothing wrong in leaving a legacy, but I think we brush too quickly by the purposeless value of labor, the simple toil and reward of existing. Even if none of my grand plans, my great works, come to fruition, I still lived, I still experienced and laughed and loved. When do those endeavors have an end? When do we laugh our last laugh, or love our last love? These are ongoing processes, that stretch on into infinity. They may be marked from time by time by a work, but most of what we do, we do so that we can do it again, and then again. In labor there is life.
In this highly unusual time, a great many of my works in progress have been delayed, some indefinitely. So many things I derived identity and value from have simply halted, and yet, with that peculiar resilience it has, life goes on regardless.[v] And strangely enough, it still has value. And stranger still, it still contains joy.
I used to hate making my bed, and maybe I still do, but I have realized that I may have been missing the point—not of making my bed, but of life. In life, we never have a moment when we can say, “Now I’m done, there is nothing left to do, there is no more life to live.” Life is an endless, monotonous, toilsome, beautiful process. Who cares if I’m never done making my bed? As I said before, making my bed isn’t just a task; it’s a way of life.
This post was written by Brynna Gang, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.
[i] Arendt, Hannah. “Labor, Work, Action.” The Phenomenology Reader, edited by Dermot Moran and Timothy Moony, Routledge, 2002, pp. 362-373, p. 362.
[ii] ibid., 365.
[iii] ibid., 366.
[iv] ibid., 366.
[v] This reminds me of a song that came out recently, titled, unshockingly “Life Goes On.” If you are seeking solace in these trying times, the remedy I would suggest is a solid addiction to BTS, and this song is as good a place to start as any.