Making great work less boring, part 2: attitudes

The flip side of what I was saying before is that understanding an aphorism like “Great work is never boring” depends on what we think those things mean. The problem is that this statement can lead us to believe that if we find something boring, it is therefore not great work. This misunderstanding is not just an innocent mistake, it’s a harmful one that can make people refuse the kinds of work that make “great work” truly great.

Trigger Warning: hospitals, illness, nursing, poop

Take another example: nursing. Yes, nursing can be the truly great work of healing and helping people. It can even be that one moment when you suddenly realize what’s wrong and intervene to save the life of someone who would have otherwise died, and you becoming the Shining Knight riding the great steed Adrenaline Rush all the way to self-importance.

But most of the time it’s not. I often say in a ha-ha-only-serious way that my mother is the only person I know who got a college degree so she could spend most of her time wiping butts. Even the ER isn’t always as exciting as you might imagine. While there might be a critical case that you save just in the nick of time, you’re just as likely to encounter a dog-tired nurse doing her end-of-shift documenting (now that can be boring) who looks up at you and asks “How many r’s in diarrhea?”

End TW

Misinterpreting “great work is never boring” to mean “boring stuff is not great work” leads to dissatisfaction when people set out to do great work and then are disappointingly confronted with the mundanity that makes up most of what they have to do to get there. I’d like to suggest a rephrasing that makes the aphorism clearer and potentially less harmful: Great work doesn’t have to be boring.

I believe that the trick here is not to find something that is never boring, or to find enough important moments to make the rest of it worthwhile, although that does help. The real magic here is to use the fact that it’s great work to make even the mundane tedium less boring.

I’m currently studying towards ordination, and one of my topics right now is meditating on the meanings of the Charge of the Goddess. I was struck by the line “All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.” This made me wonder – does it really mean all acts?

I had already been thinking about changing my attitude to household chores by trying to think of them as acts of love, as gifts that I give to my spouse and myself, rather than tedious annoyances that are never completed. If I remind myself that taking out recycling is part of making sure that we live in a clean, well-organized home, one in which we can better enjoy our lives, then my feelings about it change. Is it still tedious? Definitely. But it’s not as boring, if by boring I mean something that leaves me feeling annoyed that I had to do it at all.

If I take that interpretation, and I believe what the Charge of the Goddess says, it leads me to think that even humble things like dishes and laundry and scooping litter boxes are not just gifts, but also a form of devotions. They are devotions to Brigid, matron of our home, and to all aspects of the divine that are celebrated here. (After all, I can’t do ritual if the floor is covered in laundry – see previous post about logistics!) They’re still tedious, but realizing that dishes need to be done yet again doesn’t have to be a source of endless irritation; it’s an opportunity for me to engage in an act of love. (Not so much an act of pleasure – but hey, it’s an improvement.)

By redefining chores as part of the greater work of living with my family, they become less boring. So I’ll stick with the rephrasing that “great work doesn’t have to be boring.”

Now, this Witch has some litter boxes to scoop…

Great work is often boring, part 1: logistics

While cleaning, I ran across notes I’d made for a blog post some time ago, in response to someone saying “Great work is never boring.” The ideas for that have finally come together, and it’s relevant that they did so while I was doing mundane household chores.

First of all, if there’s anything grad school has taught me so far, it’s that qualifiers like “never,” “always,” and “everyone” should be used very, very, very sparingly. If the quote above was rephrased as “great work is seldom boring,” I might still disagree, but I wouldn’t have enough disagreement to make up a blog post. If the quote was “great work never has to be boring,” I would tentatively agree. But never boring? Um, no.

I learned a lot by leading some open rituals for Sacred Circle bookstore over the last year. In particular, I came face-to-face with the huge logistical implications of trying to conduct rituals in a space not set aside for them, let alone trying to conduct them outdoors. The day of ritual usually went something like this:

Revise pre-constructed checklist. Get together everything on the checklist. (This usually includes liquids and fragile items.) Double check. Find someone to help you get stuff to the car. Drive. Find someone to help you unload. Wait for space to become available (usually no more than 1/2 hour before scheduled start time). Set up space, sometimes with people helping, sometimes not. Find volunteers to take volunteer roles. Coach volunteers. Don’t lose anything. Field questions while doing this. Keep track of roughly how many people there are, so that you know if you have to make changes to your ritual plan if you didn’t bring enough materials (or too many) for the number of attendees. Light candles, possibly charcoal, pour liquids, and get ready to start ritual because everyone’s already waiting for you.

Now, I had previous been intimately involved in leading Christian rituals in a variety of contexts, but nothing I had ever done had been half as hard as this. The biggest difference is the logistics. In nearly all Christian settings, there are other people there to help the ritual leader, sometimes lots of them. They all have a rough idea of what is required for set up. A lot of rituals are done in dedicated spaces with nearby storage for relevant ritual items, and with plenty of time to set up beforehand. Nobody is running around worrying that they forgot the apple juice or that they don’t have a plate.

The person this impacts most is the ritual leader. A Christian cleric with lots of logistical support has time to compose herself before ritual; maybe spend a moment in prayer, go over her notes, take a deep breath, usually somewhere away from the view of her participants. The difference this makes to one’s mindset cannot be understated.

Now, is leading ritual great work? Absolutely. But if you don’t pay attention to the simple, mundane, boring details, you can’t have great ritual. That’s why I don’t like this statement: it sets up an expectation that undermines itself.

It’s easier to get volunteers for something that they expect to be “great work.” Lots of people will volunteer to Call a Quarter at a ritual, or play a role in ritual drama, or whatever. But ask for volunteers to bring the apple juice and help you carry things, and fewer hands go up. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’ve had no problem getting people to help me unload my car for rituals when I ask them on the spot. But my whole point is that pre-planning matters. I don’t know whether there will be people around to ask for that kind of help. Pre-arranging things like that would make a huge difference, but it’s hard, because it’s simple, mundane, and, let’s face it, boring.

I mean, a lot more people would want to say “I helped with the Ostara ritual by playing the part of the Spring Maiden!” than would brag about “I helped with the Ostara ritual by unloading somebody’s car.” But the car has got to get unloaded before anybody can be Spring Maiden.

Now, part of the problem here is also the relative lack of institutions and facilities among Pagans. This is also why I am highly irritated by people who are opposed to all forms of organization in Paganism. But when we spread memes like “Great work is never boring,” without defining what we mean, we don’t do ourselves any favors.

Dogs are Christians, Cats are Pagans

To restate an old religious joke, dogs are Christians – they believe in you no matter what you do. Cats are Pagans – they want to see the food in the bowl.

On an only slightly more serious note, I continue to be amused at how many Pagans and Wiccans have cats (and/or dogs, but especially cats). I think there’s something about the Pagan aesthetic of finding your own path and doing your own thing that means we relate well with cats.

Again, it’s not that Pagans can’t love dogs, but perhaps the old stories of the witch and her familiar cat are playing themselves out in the contemporary world for very good reasons…what do you think?