The Mercy in Unwashed Coffee Mugs


How to See Beauty in a Mess

I open the fridge, I grab my little salad dressing bottle. It is oily and escapes my hands as if it were a slippery fish fighting for its life, hitting the white tiles with a loud cracking sound and spinning around its own axis like a little transparent ballet dancer. Brown stickiness of balsamic vinegar and honey and pieces of cut onion are scattered, transforming the scene into a mess. It would be so easy to anger.

But then look at it! What a beautiful thing it created. Physics and stuff. It made me wonder if there is perhaps beauty in every mess. Somehow.

I read this piece of advice a long time ago, and I cannot remember where that was, but it did change my life. It said that, every time we are annoyed by someone else’s mess — their clothes lying around the apartment, the toys that are basically covering the place, the empty coffee mug that they keep “forgetting” to put in the dishwasher and instead let it sit around the couch — every time we are annoyed by their mess, we could as well take the little trace of breadcrumbs they leave behind as an opportunity to be reminded of our luck.

Truth is, those clothes strewn across the back of that armchair mean that your partner is alive, is there, is real and present. The toys making the room look like a lego monster exploded not just one time, but multiple times, means that your children are alive, they are here, they are real, they are present. And that coffee mug your mother refuses to put in the dishwasher herself every time she comes over means that she, too, is still here. And by the way, that thing you do that annoys you about yourself: that, too, means you are here. There is worse than you not following through with your flossing routine.

This does not mean we aren’t allowed to be frustrated. It doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to ask anyone to please get a grip of their clutter and their general annoyingness. We can very well continue to insist on order and tidiness and beauty and light, because yes, that often simply does feel better. So please, people, clean the place, this is hurting my eyes!

But pausing and reminding ourselves gives us an opportunity to experience beauty and awe in a moment that might otherwise be lost entirely in a violent surge of the daily mini nervous breakdown that is always looming around the corner of our tired hearts and minds.

Mindfulness means acknowledging frustration. But it also means pausing and observing yourself a step or two removed from the heat of a raging battle. The little break we gain through this pause in turn provides for an opportunity to choose an alternative option instead of reacting within our deeply engraved automated patterns. And every once in a while, what started out as an instigator for rage turns into a moment for celebration.

It doesn’t always work, and as with everything, it is so much easier said than done. But it’s not about keeping score on your gratefulness levels. Whether or not you managed to “be grateful” the twenty-seven thousand previous times (or even the next time):

Every moment you are able to experience love instead of anger — or at least love along with anger — this is a personal win for YOU. It made YOUR life more lovely for it. Yes, it’s beneficial for others also: you didn’t turn around furiously and scream at your children to finally store away their toys, regretting the heat of your temper soon thereafter. You didn’t lash out and scorn your partner for not taking out the trash. But really, what truly happened is that it cost YOU a few less nerves. It gave you a glimpse of genuine joy and heartfelt affection.

So. Observe those salad dressing ballerinas. Find the beauty in the smelly pieces of onion. And chuckle about your own clumsiness. You may not be perfect, and others may not be perfect, and in fact nobody is even remotely perfect at all — but at least you are having fun with it. I would say that’s a win.