For the past two weeks, I’ve been volunteering in St. Louis, Missouri, at my great uncle’s charter school. This particular school is located in a largely African-American, low income neighborhood, in a zip code with one of the highest crime rates in St. Louis (one of the most criminal cities in the U.S.). I think it suffices to say that I am in a very different world from my own here, and the experience is every day opening my eyes to the life of many Americans.
I asked my great uncle to volunteer at the school with the intention of teaching and aiding in the classroom. I did a small amount of tutoring this week, but otherwise have remained largely outside the classroom. The work I have done behind the scenes- stapling, folding, sorting, organizing, and labelling- is the topic of this blog post. Sounds fascinating, I’m sure.
Before this trip, I never would have considered myself engaged in the acts of folding paper, labelling bookshelves, and sorting books. Given my desire for intellectual stimulation, I used to regard such tasks as the bane of my existence, too mundane to bear. My worst nightmare has always been to end up working in a job that involves repetitive, mechanical tasks devoid of mental strain. It’s not that I felt above these jobs, but that my academic energy made me terribly unsuited to mundane work. I simply didn’t think I could do such jobs for hours on end without banging my head against the wall and giving myself a concussion.
I will not claim here that stapling has become my life’s new passion, or that organizing books will be the central tenet of my future career. I still want to pursue an intellectually vigorous job involving a range of tasks and problems to solve. However, over the course of my volunteer work, I have developed a sincere appreciation for the meditative quality of repetitive work, and for the first time I understand the Eastern teachings on the virtues of the mundane.
I will admit, I did not do the work in silence- I listened to podcasts and audiobooks as I progressed through the piles of paper and books, as I stacked and photocopied, which kept me great company. My brain was engaged in a form of intellectual stimulation while my body performed a task over and over again. The act of repetitive movement calmed me in a surprisingly profound way. Doing the work, I became a sort of machine, not in the emotionally cold or detached sense, but in the perfecting of my physical routine. The more I stapled, the more efficient I became at stapling; I learned where to hold the stapler and how to grab the paper to cut down on time and fumbling. This is not a particularly impressive feat, of course, but it inspired me to strive for perfection, not all at once, but over the course of time. I adapted gradually to the ebb and flow of my repetitive tasks, each time honing my technique subconsciously to make my life easier.
Doing a mundane, physical, repetitive task for an extended period of time sounds about as enlightening and enjoyable as getting a tooth pulled, but the task can become its own sort of meditation if you are willing to persevere. A special kind of relaxation comes with repetition; you find yourself coming closer and closer to a perfect ebb and flow with the outer world. Repetition makes you value time and makes you realize that time and practice cannot be bypassed on the route to great work. You learn to move with time, allowing it to whittle away at the rough edges of your work and smooth your process. You learn to mechanize yourself in a harmonious movement of the body.
I believe these virtues can be learned through repetitive pursuits such as playing musical instruments and sports, but I encourage you to shoulder the “burden” of a truly mundane physical task. Explore the process and the gradual uptick in efficiency that comes with time spent immersed in routine. Allow yourself mental stimulation like I did, if you wish, or enjoy music, the sounds of nature, or the sound of your own thoughts.
What have you learned from a repetitive routine? Do you use physical repetition to calm down, meditate, and explore your physical self? How?
Here is a picture of the library!