Scrawled into grime covered walls of where I used to work, a revelation written in purple ink greeted me every time I had to empty the bowels of the floor machine down the drain of the trash compactor room in the Wilkinson Center.
Taught by suffering:
drop by drop
wisdom is distilled from pain.
Clearly, I was not the first person to consider such things while trying to ignore the smell of wet cardboard, rotten bananas, and stagnant water.
As I’ve contemplated the concept of Dante’s stratified Hell, I imagine that my early morning cleaning jobs would be somewhere closer to the deepest pits—reserved primarily for the people who have thrown full cups of water into a trash can, pushed staples onto the floor to be ground into the carpet, or stuck gum ANYWHERE it doesn’t belong. I could wish for no greater disgust on the guilty that would still be appropriately reciprocal to the sin.
It’s hard not to think about Hell when you’re a custodian—especially when the batteries in your iPod die before you do and you’re stuck talking to yourself for the rest of your shift. The bars between reality and insanity have never been so thin as those in the corner of an iPod screen at 5 in the morning.
Also nearby is the idea of repentance—as gentle as teasing hidden dirt down the stairs with a broom, as seemingly fruitless as spraying one’s own reflection with glass cleaner and scouring the dark circles under the eyes with a white rag. No visible difference sometimes. Sometimes all you have to show for your effort is a half smile before you round the corner and trip over your own vacuum cord. If perfection, or even grace, were a given—well, I’d certainly be out of a job.
But instead, there is much to be thankful for. Take, for example, insatiable fatigue. I know enough about REM cycles and sleep debt that I couldn’t repay mine in blood. The 5 A.M. shift isn’t a shift, it’s a way of life. To be willing to sleep anywhere at any time is constant, but to be able to is not. To stay awake out of necessity is a lesson I have no problem believing comes straight from Christ.
As painful as this experience has been, as abject as I feel when I throw myself onto the floor each morning in order to rouse myself from sleep, I see a greater good in learning, as my mother taught me, to “live tired.” If nothing else, I might actually stand a chance to miss out on hearing these words, which so often pierce my heart when I fall asleep in yet another class:
“Sleep on now, and take your rest: it is enough, the hour is come; behold, the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.”
I mean, the Savior didn’t ask me to do anything hard—just to stay awake in American Heritage. And Comparative Literature 201… and 202… English 251… Anthropology 101… Intro to Archaeology. In the immortal words of President Monson, “I’m embarrassed to add any more to that list.”
And despite the fact that I fail as surely as those noble and great men before me have failed, I cannot help but be critical of myself; the kind of critical that comes from being a custodian and having time to myself every day to work out my salvation as I watch the sun rise over a still sleeping world—wishing so desperately that I could find that peace. Fortunately, what better thing can I do with that time but learn what Paul taught to the Thessalonians when he said, “God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.”
So I press forward, my alarm clock set to 4:30 AM, a prayer in my heart, and the expectation that I’ll someday be able to rest—if not from mine afflictions, then perhaps from knowing what O Dark Thirty looks like.