Finding Joy in Boring Chores
Why I drive my son to karate training.
Posted Feb 05, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
I drove my son on a 25-minute ride to his dojo for his karate class tonight. I waited and watched him practice for his qualifying exams for his black belt. For 90 minutes. Admittedly, I also took some notes that eventually became the article you are currently reading. After the training, I drove him home.
I did that drive yesterday too. I'll do it tomorrow, and either my wife or I will do it the next day as well. Eleven years of karate lessons. Countless drives.
As you go through life, you are often confronted with superficially unappealing tasks. Tasks like buying groceries, cleaning the kitchen, filing your taxes, cleaning the toilet, or walking the dog. In this homebound era of COVID, sometimes it seems that much of the day is little else. These chores come in many shapes and forms, and we have to do them at some point or another—often repeatedly.
Such is life.
Unfortunately, we often become mindless when performing these chores. We say we “have to do it,” or we have to “get through it,” so we can go back to doing things we enjoy.
As we construct life as a gauntlet of boring tasks, we become victims of our chores, acting like lifeless robots going through the motions. But how can we reconcile this inner conflict? How can we make ourselves do chores we don’t enjoy, without having to “endure” them?
Well, for starters, we can stop “making ourselves” do anything. Instead, we can turn them into child’s play. Here’s how.
When children play tag, they may put all their effort into touching a tree (the “safe base”) before they are tagged by others. They make up their own rules about what matters, and then pursue it passionately. They have to know where the tree is. They have to run. Fast. They have to shift directions, dodge, and duck. And they have to give that effort 100 percent.
That process is what we call "play." And we LOVE it. Remember? As a kid, you did it naturally for hours.
Note that it’s not really important to touch the tree—at least, not until we say it is. The importance is entirely made up. We know that… which is why it can be “play.” If you were going to be beaten up if you did not touch the tree, tag would not feel like a game.
In the same way, play begins to disappear at the very instant our mind makes us believe that the tree is important, whether we say so or not. In that moment, we “fuse” with our goal, and we no longer choose the qualities of being and doing that we wish to manifest. Instead of actively choosing what matters, and how we wish to play the game, we become dull and lifeless in the mindless pursuit of important outcomes.
Or, even worse, of boring ones.
As adults, we can constantly play a game called “living a meaningful life” if we know how to structure this game. For instance, I act as if raising my 15-year-old son to be a responsible adult is of importance. If I try to force that importance on myself, my mind will counter-argue that we are but specks of dust, and in the end it's a big ice-ball anyway. I’m totally disinterested in that argument. My wife and I hold it to be of importance—sue us if you don’t like it. It can then be a joyful (and effortful) journey, but it only matters to us because we chose that path.
We are not victims here, oppressed by our own caring.
After we have chosen what matters, we can decide the qualities inside how we wish to play the game. We call these qualities “values.” What values do you want to bring to the task ahead of you? For instance, I’m not driving my child to karate training to make myself out to be Super Dad. In fact, I know I can be so much better at this Dad game even though I've been at it a while (Guinness Book of World Records, please take note: I will have had a child of mine in my home for 55 straight years when my 15-year-old goes to college... my eldest just turned 51). Instead, I’m driving out of love.
I'm trying to get to that tree of a boy well-raised, but the joy is in being loving. We get to talk about important things on the way to karate. And I get to watch this kid who had a childhood muscle disorder and could not hold a fork, now grow to be as tall as me and see him kick the living daylights out of a pad and then do 50 push-ups.
This is pure fun. If you’d offered me the devil’s bargain of the outcome of a son well-raised while skipping over the many boring and difficult and wonderful moments of child-raising, I’d decline that offer every time. Touching the tree is just a context for the game of parenting tag I’m playing... we pretend it's the point (it’s not) only so we can play.
Love is in the process, not the outcome… but outcome is the process through which process becomes the outcome.
You can choose whatever meaning you wish to give to the task ahead of you. You can choose the direction and destination. Then life can happen, even in the joy of boring chores.
Be careful, however, because the mind can turn the values-focused life into another pass-or-fail test. And according to the mind, we are always on the brink of actively failing. So hold your values lightly, and then pursue them passionately.