The button on my blue pyjamas fell off months ago. Every so often I pull them on, do up the tie, and promise myself I’ll replace the button that day. ‘Today I’ll find a button and sew it on’, I tell myself. But I never do. For whatever complicated reason I’m unable to find five minutes in my day to find a button to sew back on my pyjamas. Which means that every time I pull them on, or hang them on the line to dry, I wish I had.
The American researcher Mihalyi Csikszentmilhayi has done decades of work into the psychology of ordinary experience. He and his team spoke with thousands of people – tracking them across their day. Roughly half to two thirds of their subjects’ day was given over to work. Another quarter was given over to leisure. The other quarter to a third was given over to maintenance activities – grooming, cooking, eating, housework, shopping and errands – to those things which, quite literally, keep our lives from falling apart.
In Csikszentmilhayi’s view, as in Sigmund Freud’s, much the work of life involves building it up – forging relationships, creating things, fulfilling aspirations. The rest of life involves shoring up what we’ve built up to prevent it from falling apart. Even a well-built house, left unrepaired, will eventually fall down. Even the most precious friendship, left untended, wilts. Even top athletes, after a month of illness, lose muscle mass. This is the natural way of things.
And yet rarely do we turn to each other and ask how we feel about keeping the wheels on our life. How do we feel about the hundreds of tiny efforts, from repairing a lamp to attending an exercise class, that maintains the life that we already have? How do we feel about caring for things which are necessary day to day, but which we don’t ultimately care about? I know I’m not the only one who struggles to do basic mending.
Sitting here now a whole list of small things that need doing in my life file through my mind. Things which, were I to do them, would make me feel lighter and more together, the master of my ship. The cracks that need filling in our sitting room wall, the legacy from major building work. The hem on a favourite pair of trousers that in fantasy will be mended by being pushed to the back of my drawer. The dog hair that daily thickens in my car. The address book that is so out of date as to be embarrassing. Am I really too busy to do such things? Am I waiting for permission – to be sent to my room until I promise to do them?
At school I was taught to look after my belongings – more for fear of losing them than to protect their inherent value. My twenties were such a scramble that the concept of maintenance was largely foreign. As I moved around London I passed a few things on and discarded others, but I don’t remember actively maintaining my belongings. By the time I embraced adulthood, in my thirties, my life was complicated in a way that made it hard to know where my belongings began and my children’s ended.
Around the time that I grasped my life wouldn’t last forever, I realised that however well I looked after my belongings, one day they too would fall apart. Unless I lost it, my jewellery would outlive me, which is why it remains precious. However my jeans, books, crockery and the kitchen extractor fan – all these would fray or obselesce.
In failing to sew the button back on my pyjamas, am I being realistic? Or am I caving in to the feeling that since everything is destined to fall apart anyway, that’s the point of stalling it? Does this, my residual reluctance, explain why the imaginative energy required to find a needle and thread is greater than the act of sewing on the button?
Now that the button is back on my pyjamas I can’t help wondering what all the fuss was about. But then my eye takes in the cracks in the living room wall – an hour at most up a ladder – and again I’m tripped up by a small yet insurmountable household task that will make the world of difference to me, yet go largely unnoticed by everyone else.
I end with a note from Freud. We are not, he wrote, responsible for the broad course of our lives. Many of the big choices – of family and to a large extent our personality – are not of our making. However we are, he noted, responsible for our satisfactions, for seeking out and fulfilling them as far as we are able.
For my own part, recognising that little things are worth doing even when they don’t count as achievements, even when there is no audience to reward me, has helped me to grow up and find satisfaction within, which is where it matters most.