Getting Clean

I once read an Aldous Huxley quote in the forward of Brave New World in which he described chronic remorse as the most hapless of human emotions. Perhaps the catchiest line of the quote, the line that has stayed with me is, “Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.” 

Of course Huxley is referring to his remorse when it comes to A Brave New World – his regrets when it comes to plot structure, character development and other literary features in the text of the novel. This type of remorse is one that I wish I could empathize with. I would love to digress on the features of my beloved novel and consider how I might do things differently and how that might have led to a million more people loving my book, in addition of the millions that found love for it just the way it was. 

Unfortunately, my crimes are not literary and are not ones that would be the subject of heated discussion in a high school English class. My infidelity, selfishness, and drunken debauchery wouldn’t make for good scholarly debates. Quite the contrary, they are mistakes that people are uncomfortable acknowledging, and I am the most uncomfortable of those people. My mistakes are burned into me and the people that I love and are painful when exposed to the open air. My mistakes are weapons that are used to burn me when I become too confident or at ease with myself. 

For this reason, it is difficult to heed Huxley’s advice and let my failings become the dust of former footsteps – dust easily disrupted by new wind and forgotten in the distance. My dirt is always there, on me and on the mirrors in which I search for myself. 

I’m not alone – not the only human trying to get clean. We all struggle to shake off our former selves and the regrets that bind us to our past. Even when we are diligent in our efforts to get clean and stay clean, we collect dirt. 

The analogy of cleanliness and spiritual fitness is an easy one for me to grasp because I clean people’s houses. Every week or two I am wiping down the same surfaces, mopping the same floors, and scrubbing the same toilets. The dirt is different dirt than the week before but really it’s all the same – settling in the same places and originating from the same sources – from the same patterns of behavior. 

When I’m cleaning, I am always struck by the futility of it and I wait in fear for the day that these people are struck by it as well. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, they tell me that a feeling of rejuvenation fills the air, mingling with the scent of bleach and PineSol. In the moments after everything has been cleaned, these people feel compelled to do the things that they’ve been meaning to do – to clean out their closets or go through those stacks of papers on their desk. It’s as if they had been weighted down and immobile by the layers of dust – that the grime had made things impossible to grasp or made them unwilling to grasp those things. 

Obviously there is no return to that pristine state we started in. We will never be granted an eternal state of grace. However, every time that we work to get clean we are able to catch a glimpse of the self that we aspire to. If we don’t make an effort to get clean, we risk losing all of ourselves in what we accumulate. It’s what we manage to do in the moments of clarity that matter and will shine bright in the measure of our lives.

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