My obsession with cleanliness and stamina for cleaning was put to the test on Thursday when I opened the door to my new room. They conflicted. I watched helpless at the appalling condition of my room and seriously contemplated quitting hall. After spending close to 2 hours mopping every inch of the table and the wall and floor around it with an excess of dettol until my hands burnt from the alkali, I conceded defeat.
So being the genius I am, I delegated. Help was only a phone call away and that was settled in less than 3 minutes. I called a cleaning agency and hired someone to do the job. Easy-peasy, right? Until Friday, when the cleaning lady arrived.
My heart plopped into my stomach when I saw her. Thin and wide-eyed, speaking in clear, halting English. She told me later she’s 60. And we settled for a conversation in Mandarin. She was cheerful and eager and friendly and helpful. And she was worriedly apologetic about being late. But my voice took a low, tired personality. In my head, I was thinking, “Fuck, I suck. I’m making an old lady clean my room.” My conscience was eating me up but I didn’t know what to do. How could I send her home? She got caught in a traffic jam and mistakenly alighted 2 stops earlier to get here. What will her agent say to her? And worse, would I be undermining her and insulting her ability?
And what is wrong with this world?! Why are old ladies coming out to work? Where are their children? I want a robust young man to clean my room! Not a sweet and frail old lady!
She was keen to get down to work. And I couldn’t watch. Besides, the ‘genius’ was clever enough to have only 35 bucks in her wallet. “Off you go,” she said, “enjoy yourself!” I wanted to duck into the first church I see and confess to the nice priest and do all the Hail Mary’s he’ll want me to do. Even though my published religion is Buddhism and I don’t know what Hail Mary’s are.
And this is nothing compared to when I returned 2 hours later. She had removed and cleaned all the drawers and even the side table with rollers and laid them out to dry outside the room. Excuse me while I dig a hole to bury my face. She had cleaned every surface in my room. And she looked happy while the sweat glistened on her forehead.
We started talking as I walked her out and waited for her bus. Life lessons, they’re conducted at times and places least expected. She told me she had cleaned my room as if it were her own house or her own daughter’s room in hall. She has a daughter, by the way, who had graduated with Honours in Economics and Geography and had also stayed in hall. She cleans because she likes to, on top of her day job as an accounts clerk. She told me about the importance of putting your heart in everything you do and striving for that kind of perfection because it will give you meaning and happiness in your actions.
“What if you find that life has no meaning? Then where’s the point in putting your heart in?” I asked.
“Then you have to ask yourself why you think that life has no meaning. Is it because studying is tough? Think about it this way. You’re studying now so that you’ll get a job you like in future. Many people drag themselves to work, thinking only of the paycheck at the end of the month. But a job is more than that. Because you are doing your job well, your boss brings in more profit, he hires more people, and these people get to support their family and do more stuff with the money. You make people happy this way.”
Her outlook on life is so simple and pure. I cannot help but marvel at her innocence. She’s 60. She can easily be cynical and bitter and say that she’s seen the worst of people and of the world. Yet, she finds joy in living her life for others. She smiles when someone gives his seat up for her on the bus, just as warmly as she smiles when she gives her own seat up for others. Yes, she does that, when she has the full privilege of having the seat for herself.
“So are you saying that making others happy is the key to our own happiness and possibly the meaning of our lives?” I pressed.
Nothing new. We hear crazed evangelists advocating this as often as they proclaim all who do not follow Christ burn in hell.
“Isn’t it? Doesn’t your heart warm when you see someone happy because of what you did?”
Maybe. Maybe the answer was there all along. We just cannot conceive how our lives can be made by making others’. Maybe when we’ve been down the path of ‘living for myself’ for too long and still contentment evades us, it’s time for a change.