There are many more menial tasks to be done in life than there are heroic and interesting tasks.
Even if you’re working in a highly creative job, your daily work routine will likely involve a fair amount of repetitive, humdrum tasks. It doesn’t mean the menial tasks are not challenging, the danger is that we do them poorly. Nor does it mean the menial tasks are unimportant, the danger is we make our lives miserable by continually looking at the clock, waiting for knock-off time.
As you may know, I split my time between my ministry role and running a small vineyard and winery. These are both creative and interesting roles and I am truly blessed to be able to do them. But particularly in the winery and vineyard there are many hours of menial work. This week it has been bottling the 2017 vintage. We are a small operation (our biggest batch of wine is 5000 litres of Shiraz), so we have chosen to bottle the wine ourselves. We could get in a mobile bottling plant and knock it off in a day, but we prefer to employ a few locals and do it ourselves. The costs are similar (if anything, slightly cheaper) and it spreads some money around the community. But it is repetitive and takes a few days. Winemaking, for all its romance, is about 90% cleaning. Everything needs to be kept clean and sanitary and bottling 4000 litres of wine this week translates into hand sanitizing, hand filling, hand capping, hand drying, hand labelling and hand stacking 5500 bottles going at about 12 bottles per minute.
It’s a six person job done to a backbeat of hits from the 80’s and 90’s as we work together to achieve a common goal. When we get it right each person is moving fluidly through their individual responsibilities, and the entire group’s activities are synced together in unison; much like a choir singing beautiful harmony.
But in the midst of this repetitive, humdrum activity something wonderful can happen. These tasks can be the secret gateway that will help tackle the most difficult tasks in your day to day activities: thinking and contemplation. Have you ever started to drive home from work, and suddenly you’re home and you don’t remember a single thing about the traffic? Have you ever been having a shower when suddenly you have a “lightbulb” moment and you suddenly know how to solve some difficult problem that has been nagging at you all week?
These sudden realisations are not simply coincidental. As we perform these tasks repeatedly, they become part of our procedural memory, up to the point where we can function on autopilot.
Procedural memory is a part of the long-term memory that is responsible for knowing how to do things, also known as motor skills. As the name implies, procedural memory stores information on how to perform certain procedures, such as walking, talking and riding a bike. These activities demand less concentration from the thinking part of our brain.
Apparently, engaging in repeated tasks activates stimulates our higher levels of thinking and creative reasoning by distracting our hands and focusing our minds. While it may see counterintuitive, in history we know that David was a shepherd, the prophet Amos described himself as a pruner of fig trees and Jesus was a carpenter. The leading disciples were fishermen. And St. Paul, a tent maker, urges Christians to “work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
Does this mean mindless routines and menial tasks the secret to great achievement and spiritual insight? Perhaps not, but they may create the necessary space for creativity to take place. Start using your menial tasks to ponder, plan, and organise your thoughts. You might even find yourself in a state of contemplation and prayer.
This is the gospel, and it’s good news.
Brian Spencer, Minister