Holding my breath, suffocated by the burning odor of bleach, I took up my sponge against the scarred and yellowed linoleum of my first kitchen floor. The war raged long. Arms weary, knees bruised, I scrubbed like my life depended on it. And when I rinsed the host of suds at the end of a long afternoon…the floor did not look any cleaner.
I obsessed over that kitchen floor for the whole first year of my marriage. I took it as a black mark against my identity as a homemaker, and I assumed that all guests who came over harbored deep, dark, secret thoughts against me for it.
Utterly ridiculous. But somewhere between my own OCD, an ever-taunting Instagram, and the general anxiety a young wife experiences when transitioning to married life, I had become convinced that dust and dirt and heaps of laundry cried out my failure as a woman. I don’t know what dramatic change I expected of myself, I was never a tidy child growing up.
Human beings are prone to believe that the things they do will fulfill them, will give them identity. All A’s on a report card, acceptance into a prestigious graduate school, a unique fellowship opportunity–I’m a valuable person. Quiet and orderly children, a family dressed like J. Crew models, Ivy League parent status–I’m a valuable person. Straighten the couch cushions, wipe down the mantelpiece, vacuum the hallway–I’m a valuable person. Fail at any of these things…I’m sure you know how the rest of that thought process goes.
I’ve labored under this burden in varying degrees throughout my adolescent years and into young adulthood. It stole a great deal of joy from my first months of marriage. I grew bitter and angry because I did not view myself as a valuable person. I grew to resent being asked for simple kindnesses that pricked at the dearth of my housekeeping prowess, like providing a meal for a family at church or folding my husband’s laundry. It’s a blessing that Ian is so long-suffering.
The common human conviction that we can make ourselves happy, that we can save ourselves, is a theme strewn throughout literature. I’ve been thinking about Shakespeare’s Macbeth a lot lately since I am preparing for my summer seminar on the play, and I believe the Scottish king may be the most poignant example of a man who labored under the burden that he must save himself.
When the three witches confront Macbeth and Banquo with the knowledge of a royal fate, they do not provide any indication of how the crown will come to Macbeth. All he knows is that the Scottish throne is written in his stars. But instead of patiently watching and waiting to see if the prophecy comes true, he decides to take his fate in his own hands. Macbeth is told ‘this will be' and hears 'you must do.'
How many times have I made that error? Countless. This tragic flaw of Macbeth not only leads to his doom, but also makes him a powerfully sympathetic character. We mourn for Macbeth as he madly chases the invisible dagger before his eyes; we weep for his all-too-familiar murdered sleep.
In the second scene of the play, a captain returns from the battlefield where Macbeth has just prevailed over Scottish rebels. The way he chooses to describe Macbeth’s valiant performance to King Duncan is little strange:
“If I say sooth I must report they were
As cannons overcharged with double cracks,
So they doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe.
Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds
Or memorize another Golgotha,
I cannot tell–“ (1.2.36-41)
Macbeth, the captain explains, had redoubled his efforts to push back the rebel army as if he were not concerned with covering himself in wounds…or as if he meant to “memorize another Golgotha.” What in the world? Why would Macbeth want to reenact Golgotha? Wouldn’t it make more sense if he had meant to remember the day as another “Marathon” or “Rubicon” or [insert glorious ancient battle reference here]? But instead, the captain says it seemed like Macbeth was trying to memorize another Golgotha, where three men died weakly on a cross.
Or, rather, did Macbeth see in Golgotha the brave sacrifice of a God for the salvation of His people?
To the captain, it seems as though Macbeth was willing to take on the burden of Scotland’s salvation through his own performance. His actions here on the battlefield (and perhaps later in regicide?) were intended to save himself and his people. Maybe Macbeth intended to be the Scottish Christ; maybe he believed he could personally bring peace to Scotland.
Instead, his actions only guaranteed his own madness and misery.
There can only be one Christ. No man can secure his own happiness or the fulfillment of his soul. The peace and prosperity of a nation cannot ultimately rest in one imperfect man. Instead of memorizing “another” Golgotha, Macbeth needed to memorize the first and only Golgotha.
In the same way, my salvation and identity cannot be secured by redoubling my efforts on a kitchen floor. I should clean my house because I want to, not because it comments on my value as a woman or a wife. That horrifying slab of linoleum was there before I moved into that apartment, and it would have taken a contractor with many more tools and means than myself to resurface that floor. In the same way, the black mark against my identity was present at my birth, and the only cure for it is found at the first Golgotha.