The Cardigan family had some out of town extended family company visiting this weekend. If this were a different sort of blog, what follows would be a description of the event the family came in to town for, complete with pictures of the Cardigans surrounded by various family and friends.
Since this isn't that sort of blog, though, I thought I'd share with you some of the thoughts that occurred to me as I was vacuuming on Friday afternoon.
I was thinking about cleaning; specifically, I was thinking about cleaning for guests. I was pondering the fact that though I try to keep a 'clean' house, I'm not the world's greatest homemaker; my house isn't a delightful oasis filled with examples of my domestic arts, as I am a card-carrying M.I.S.C.R.E.A.N.T. (or would be, if we could get someone to make us the cards). I reflected, momentarily, on the Four Levels of Clean, and it struck me that in addition to different levels of clean, there are also vast differences between one person and another as to what "clean" means.
To a bachelor, for instance, "clean" may mean that he's vacuumed the living room of his tiny apartment, removed the empty pizza boxes, and stuffed all the clutter into his bedroom, closing the door to it securely before Mom and Dad arrive. His mother may notice the green slime in the kitchen sink, but the bachelor didn't forget to clean it; he's simply unaware that there's anything wrong with the kitchen as it is.
The bachelor example may be an extreme; but even among people whom you'd expect to agree on the concept of "clean" there may be some startling differences. One homeschooling mama out there might clean for average company the way I'd clean for the Pope, the President, or a realtor; another might be more laid back about it, and clean the same way she normally cleans for family. (As for the homeschooling moms whose homes are always perfect, I have a strong suspicion that they are really aliens from the planet Zaptar, with the secret ability to zap clutter and rematerialize it in someone else's home, which would explain the otherwise inexplicable piles of stuff that show up in my living room.)
At this point, as I rounded the corner of the living room and began to vacuum the bedroom hallway, I was struck by a sudden, horrifying thought: what, exactly, does "clean" mean?
Clearly it means more than the absence of dirt, or I wouldn't have been so committed to the clutter-removal stage of company preparation. But equally clearly, people can, and do, define "clean" differently, so at the deeply subjective level "clean" can mean different things to different people at different times and places. So, how do I know if I'm really "cleaning?" Is clutter-removal necessary? Is scrubbing the kitchen sink necessary?
Is this vacuuming even necessary?
I switched off the vacuum, but only to move the plug to a different outlet so I could reach the children's rooms. Logically, I knew there had to be a reason why I was doing what I was doing, and after a bit more rumination, I found it.
The principle, I thought, is not that I clean for my guests. The principle is that I'm committed to the ideals of good hospitality. If my focus is on good hospitality, then the exact definition of the word "clean" becomes supremely unimportant; even if my guests are the sort of people who dust their light fixtures daily (they weren't) it doesn't be come necessary to clean as they would; it is only necessary for me to clean as I would, when I'm having guests, in order to maximize their comfort and enjoyment of the time we spend together.
And suddenly, I found myself understanding exactly what Mark Shea has been saying all this time about torture.
I once was participating on a blog thread on a blog that wasn't Mark Shea's, and several of us were discussing the definition of torture. We were just mildly expressing an opinion that perhaps, at some point, the Church might come up with a definition of the word "torture" for the sake of moral theology, and speculating on what that definition might be, when all of a sudden Mark showed up on the thread, scolding all of us for trying to define "torture" and accusing us of wanting a definition of "torture" so we could tiptoe right up to the line and slap someone on the other side, or some such thing. Umbrage was taken, feathers were ruffled, fur began to fly, and several other metaphors were seriously mangled in the process; but when the dust settled, I spent some time reading what Mark had been saying about torture, and I understood where he was coming from, even if, privately, I thought that a nice clear definition might be helpful in the long run.
But now, having tried to come up with a single, clear definition of what it means to "clean" for guests, I realized that there are some things that simply can't be approached and solved through a mere definition of terms. Even if a good working definition of "clean" could be agreed upon, there would always be those who insisted that, for instance, dusting the miniblinds is crucial, while others would scoff at the miniblind minimalists and decree that a thorough window-washing, inside and out, is the minimum of decency when one is having guests to one's home.
Focusing on the principle of good hospitality instead of a (pardon the word) torturous definition of the word "clean" clears things up considerably. If we generally agree that we should practice good hospitality when it comes to having guests, and we further agree that part of being a good host means making sure our house is clean for them, then the important focus is placed where it should be, on the subjective intention of the hosts, not the accident involving, say, a young child, a permanent marker, and a light colored couch, which is discovered just as the guests are pulling up in the driveway.
Which means that Mark is right, and our focus on prisoners shouldn't be "But what if they might potentially Know Something Important??" or even "Well, how cold is too cold? Sixty-eight degrees? Sixty-five?" etc. Our focus, like the focus on good hospitality, should be on the principle of humane treatment of the incarcerated. If we are committed to the principle of humane treatment then we don't have to worry that humiliating photos involving exploited prisoners and people I'm embarrassed to share a country, and in at least one instance a gender, with, will show up on the evening news. It is possible that in the course of managing prisoners you might inadvertently cause or permit harm, injury, discomfort or embarrassment to them, but if you truly are committed to the principle of humane treatment of prisoners then you may rest easy: you will never torture someone by accident.
Let's take a silly pretend example. Suppose the head of a prison has a group of prisoners, some of whom are from Alaska, and some of whom are from Hawaii. The Hawaiians want the cell block to be kept at a toasty eighty degrees, while the Alaskans get extremely cranky when the temperature rises above sixty-five. The prison warden can decide where to set the thermostat based on several things: which group is larger, which group has the rowdier or more dangerous inmates, whether either group can agree on a compromise temperature, whether it costs too much to raise the heat (or the air conditioning) that much (which might negatively impact the prison budget in other ways) and even whether he might set the thermostat somewhere in the middle and allow the prisoners to earn the occasional raising or lowering of it based on good behavior. None of these would violate the principle of humane treatment; but if he decided he truly wants the Alaskans to suffer and therefore raises the thermostat to eighty-two degrees, he's in violation of that principle.
Look at the same type of situation from the "hospitality" standpoint: a homeschooling mom is having a group of other mothers over at the same time her great aunt is visiting. Great Aunt Janet likes to be warm, and shivers when you run the air conditioning; but the homeschooling mamas include several with nursing infants, who may get too uncomfortable if the house stays at eighty degrees. Whether the hostess keeps the house warm for Great Aunt Janet's sake, or lowers the home's temperature for the comfort of the visiting moms, as long as she's trying to be guided by the principles of good hospitality either decision will be perfectly valid and acceptable; but if she were to keep the house warm in hopes that the moms would leave early and not eat much, then she'd be in violation of the principle of good hospitality.
All of which is a long way to go to express the idea that intentions really do matter. And to apologize to Mr. Shea for my extended thick-headedness in not understanding the point he was trying to make; not until I was almost finished vacuuming for my company.