Monday Over Coffee: "The Dishes"

Published September 19, 2022 by Greg Funderburk

Everyone wants to save the Earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.
— P.J. O'Rourke

Every so often, while preparing for what I hope will be a well-received lesson at church—perhaps a lesson about humility, patience, presence, or grace—something happens. In deep concentration, I'm briefly diverted by a call from someone with a minor need. Perhaps while I'm writing something arises in the office, and I'm asked to lend some help for just a moment. Or this: I'm at home, making good progress on an upcoming presentation, and I'm reminded about a household chore I've neglected. In such times, I'm sadly obliged to report, a huffy feeling often comes over me, accompanied by the self-serious thought that the mundane thing I'm now being asked to pitch in on is far less important than the crucial personal task I've now had to set aside.

It's simply the case that certain work, certain endeavors we undertake, offer us a higher degree of emotional satisfaction, of salience, of personal validation than others, and we tend to triage this sort of work over the mundane, day-to-day little chores we're all regularly called upon to do as a matter of course.

P.J. O'Rourke died in February of 2022. He was both an acute observer of human nature and a uniquely gifted writer. As one of his eulogists, a journalist named Matt Labash, expressed upon his passing, the subtext of most of O'Rourke's writing was: Aren't we all ridiculous? Typing out his remembrances after his friend's death, Labash decided to conduct an experiment. He had five of O'Rourke's twenty published books on his desk. "I am now," Labash wrote, "going to open each one randomly, and relay to you whatever passage I see first." Mind you, he said, this is not a greatest hits reel, but a simple roll of the dice. Here's the first paragraph he turned to from O'Rourke's 1983 book Modern Manners:

This brings us to a more drastic method of getting an audience: be one. Listen patiently while other people tell you about themselves. Maybe they'll return the favor. This is risky, however. By the time they get done talking about themselves and are ready to reciprocate, you may be dead from old age. Another danger is that if you listen long enough you may start attending to what's being said. You may start thinking about other people, even sympathizing with them. You may develop a true empathy for others, and this will turn you into such a human oddity that you will become a social outcast.

Five random "dart-throws" inside each of O'Rourke's five books produced an equally humorous, enchanting, or incisive passage. "Try this with any other writer," Labash wrote, "and see how quickly it fails." And yet P.J. O'Rourke wasn't just a tremendous writer and a keen student of life with a particularly trenchant sense of humor, he was a remarkably kind human being as well.

Labash references a story relayed to him about a man named Sam Pocker who said that, when he was 17, he went to a P.J. O'Rourke book signing. O'Rourke signed his book, but noticed Sam looked distressed and asked what was wrong. Sam said that, after years of being told he was a superb writer, his freshman writing professor had failed him. He had in fact just received an F on a creative writing assignment before heading over to the bookstore. O'Rourke asked to see the paper—a detailed four-page review of a dinner Sam had recently eaten at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Sam took the paper out of his backpack and stood there as this famous writer carefully read it through all the way. When he finished, O'Rourke looked up and said, "She's just jealous." Pocker grew up and became a published author himself.

What if we have it all backwards and all the little things, both singularly and also in their accumulation, matter much more than the big things? What if we valued being in the midst of the audience more than being up front? Valued listening more than speaking? Became more attuned to what's going on inside the life of the person right in front of us, rather than so wrapped up in the self-centered, personal publicity tours our lives sometimes become? What if instead of being so enthralled with the big, we focused on the little, the local? What if instead of seeking the spotlight on the big stage, we just did our duty on a small one? What if instead of being so focused—each of us—on trying to save the world, we just helped Mom with the dishes.

God — You save the world. I'll do the dishes. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk