Skip to content

Binding Beauty of Chores

I recently did one of my favorite winter activities: a backcountry hut trip. A group of us schlepped a bunch of gear and food into the woods, and spent a few days living simply: heating a rustic cabin with firewood, melting snow for water, cooking, eating, and exploring the outdoors together. After a long weekend in this environment, I feel refreshed, relaxed, and more deeply connected with the friends that I accompanied.
Counterintuitively, part of the joy of a hut trip comes from the chores: the small, quaint, simple challenges that occupied much of our time. These included pumping water through a filter, splitting wood for kindling, and scraping ice from the door jam, to name a few. These activities may not sound like an integral part of a vacation, but they fulfill deeply: through chores we got to provide value to each other, and enact concrete transformation of our surroundings.
Zoom back for a second. Modernity removes routine tasks from our lives through a combination of automation, specialization, and collectivization:
  • Thermostats and furnaces abstract the management of heat (automation)
  • Professionalized plumbers enable ignorance about pipes (specialization)
  • Public utilities ensure the potability of water (collectivization)
These three impersonal processes remove manual labor as they increasingly automate, outsource, and collectivize the effort needed to sustain human comfort. Though these are the pillars of human progress, a side effect of their efficency is to weaken the bonds that hold us together.
Relationships, Families, and Communities are (in part) held together through chores: small acts of service that connect the individual to the broader unit through the wilful contribution to shared value. As an easily cognizable example, consider how people who live in adjacent dwellings become neighbors. The small requests (can you look out for a package, take in the cans while we’re away), and small offerings (alerting them to an open garage, shoveling their part of the sidewalk) that neighbors take from and give to one another form a network of communal care that slightly inconveniences every individual, while constructing a whole (a neighborhood) that is stronger and more resilient than the components considered individually (houses, people). Relationships, Friendships, Communities, and even Families are forged through this same force: service is a key binding agent in human relationships.
While automation, specialization, and collectivization make our lives concretely easier, they reduce our reliance on others for our comfort, and conversely reduce the number of opportunities we have to serve one another.
  • Novel technologies that monitor the state of your garage door, and online systems for holding mail reduce our reliance on (and capacity to visibly assist) our neighbors.
  • The abundance of professional plumbers makes us less likely to reach out to a handy family member or neighbor for help.
  • Municipal snow plowing obviates my favorite form of neighborly care: shoveling a neighbor’s sidewalk.
These three forces (automation, specialization, and collectivization) meet our needs through impersonal means, and in doing so, remove the possibility of the personal connections that used to arise out of these tasks.
Let’s be clear: the fulfillment of need that these forces bring about is unquestionably a good: they bring about a world where independence and freedom are more broadly accessible and more equitably distributed. While it would be ill advised to attempt to revert to some state of unfulfilled need, we must deal with the bad side effect of this good medicine: how do we strengthen and cultivate interpersonal bonds, both individually and structurally, in a technologically advanced (and advancing) world?
Zooming back into the hut trip, I think this is part of what makes it so magical. Though the setting of a remote hut is contrived in the sense that we could return to modernity, in every other way the demands it imposes are real. Without heat, water, food, or sanitation, our individual situations would be dire. Tackling this reality boils down to chores: to chop wood, melt snow, cook food, and filter water. Each individual then has the opportunity (and social pressure) to complete parts of this service: to do simple chores, thank one another for completing the tasks that they do, and through non-directed individual action, become a unit that can keep itself warm, hydrated, fed, and clean. It is this togetherness, this communion of purpose, that forges friendships, trust, and comfort among group members. I leave every hut trip with deeper, stronger relationships with each of the other participants.
The appreciation I have for hut trips is not a call for reversion to more primitive living conditions. Rather, as automation, specialization, and collectivization fulfill more of our physical needs, we must recognize how this weakens our dependence upon, and potential service of others. In response, we must invent or discover new acts of service, rather than trying to reclaim challenges from the forces that obviate them. Human want (and thus capacity for support) is unbounded. As we advance as a civilization the mechanism for scaffolding interpersonal relationships can change to reflect the needs of the present, and the humans working to meet them.
Ask yourself:
  • What might your neighbor, sibling, or friend struggle with, and how might you provide them aid or comfort?
  • Where could others (through small acts of theirs) make a large difference in your life?
  • (and critically): how can you foster within yourself the selflessness to offer, and the humility to accept, help?
Whether it’s dogsitting, sharing hot food or book recommendations, practicing emotional vulnerability, helping with childcare, or simply calling someone out of the blue, there are a plethora of ways that we can (through small efforts) deliver huge value for others. Each of these represents an opportunity to connect with and serve one another, and in the process we enmesh ourselves as part of a shared community, one that is stronger than the sum of its parts.
These impersonal forces (automation, economic specialization, and collectivization) will continue to make our lives simpler, cheaper, and more lavish. All good things. But as they grow we must scaffold the structures that lie out of their reach. Friendships can’t be automated; families can’t be bought on a marketplace; municipalities can’t legislate a community into existence. As individual convenience is served by these market forces (and glorified by culture), its up to each of us to rediscover the inefficent, sometimes hard, and always rewarding tradition of extending help without expectation, and receiving it with grace.