“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
―Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. week. I’m still celebrating, and in honor of one of my favorite leaders, a piece about sweeping.
Street sweeping is a giant business in New York City. It’s also a big pain for millions of New Yorkers, who once a day, interrupt their lives to move their cars to the side of the street to let the sweeper pass. The moment it whirs by, it stirs up clouds of litter and dust, people dashing to re-park as traffic piles up. “Is all this necessary?” I thought.
I got my answer one holiday weekend, when NYC state employees were off for three days. Instead of clean streets, we woke up to stinky, dirty blocks lined with trash. Every step crunched down on a cigarette or piece of food. “This isn’t civilized!” I said.
Things we do in our life feel unnecessary at times. Why make the bed when you’ll get back in tonight? Getting dressed is pointless if you work from home. The pile of papers will grow tomorrow, why clean before you leave the office? We sigh at the futility of these boring tasks, annoyed we have to pay attention again.
As boring as it feels, our job is to sweep. To sweep and stir up the dust in our lives so it doesn’t settle. Because when it settles, we feel overwhelmed. We feel anxious.
It’s the small habitual actions we take everyday that ensures our lives function smoothly. Only by paying attention do we feel calm;
Only by maintenance do we make consistent progress.
We sweep every once in a while not to keep our lives pristine, but peaceful. This is the stuff of progress.
It’s easy to overlook what bores us; to let it slide for too long. That’s what turns litter into trash, small problems into big ones. Ignore if if you want to, but that don’t stop dust bunnies from growing!
The choice to sweep is intentional. And hard.
It is hard to realign your thoughts daily to the positive. Hard to readjust focus on your biggest goals and reevaluate which relationships build you up or break you down.
The choice is hard, but once you choose, you create a life that supports you for the long haul.
Get dressed. Speak kindly. Write down thoughts that stress you. Wash the dishes. Organize your papers. Apologize. Wipe your feet. Make the call. Sweep the litter from your life.
I don’t curse street sweepers anymore. I know they keep my city looking as good as possible. Your daily sweeps will do the same for your life.
Pay attention to the corners of your life, even the ones with cobwebs, and sweep when necessary. Your life will look different if you do.
PS: Coincidentally, my friend Alex also wrote a post about sweeping in honor of MLK day. I loved her post and hope you enjoy it.