I think about many things while washing dishes every night. Requiring as it does a few moments of undisturbed attention in the otherwise a hectic after-work routine of making dinner, cleaning up, playing with the kids, bathing them, and wrestling them into bed, it’s a good time for thinking. Most of what I think about is: how much do I really need to wash this dish?
The more I think about, the more I realize that question appears all over my life. How much of this mess do I really need to clean up? How often do I really need to take out this trash? How much do I really need to run this errand? How much do I really need to mow the grass? It’s a question about responsibility and tradeoffs. Who is responsible for doing those things and what will happen if I don’t do it well (or at all)? We teach our kids, whether intentionally or not, that they are responsible for their own things and will be punished if they aren’t. They have to pick up their own toys, clean their own rooms, wash their own armpits, etc. It makes sense. Like most things I tell my kids, I do the opposite.
How thoroughly do I need to wash a dish? Is a quick rinse enough or does it need a scrub? Should I just wash the inside of the cup or the whole thing? Should I just toss it in the dishwasher or wipe it down first? As in most situations, the answer comes down to whether it is mine. It would be reasonable to expect that I would take special care of my own things (that is, after all, the basis of the whole concept of private property in capitalistic systems), but no. I feel free to neglect my own things, but I can’t bring myself to neglect others. I know I’ll be fine if my own cup or the plates I use aren’t spotless, but I’ll make the little extra effort for the rest of my family just in case. I don’t worry about my own house being a little messy, but I make sure we pick up all the toys before we leave my parents’ house.
The effect extends to interactions with other children. I’m much more likely to tell my own kids to give up a toy or wait their turn or stop shouting than I am someone else’s. I’m gentler with them because I don’t know them, don’t know how they will respond, and don’t have the same responsibility to teach them. My own kids I expect to share and play nice and not get upset, regardless of what anyone else is doing. Wouldn’t be surprised if my kids think I never take their side or my wife is annoyed that I never defend her as much as she would like. But if I don’t, it’s not because I don’t love them but because I do. They are mine, and I give them more than I give myself. This is what love requires, to consider what is others as better than my own.