Life lessons from a cleaner
Ah, the classic case of ‘romanticisation of the poor life’. But, hear me out.
I walked into the office and was greeted with a smile by the man mopping the floors. He was dressed in his uniform of a white shirt under a black jumper and trousers. Faux leather shoes were on his feet. This is what he’d wear, day in day out, as I walked through the office, around to the back entrance to get to the place where I was busy in the throes of my internship.
A fire door acted as the barrier between the hallway of the office and our set, of which I’d barrel through in my haste to get to work. Enroute in the hallway, there was a little cubby in the wall that the cleaner made his own. When I’d steal out for lunch breaks, I’d see him, through the rectangular glass plane of the fire door, sitting in his metal chair, always staring down at his phone.
One time, when I pushed through the door for a bathroom break, I noticed the sound coming out of his phone. I realized he was listening to Quran, the Holy Book for Muslims, unashamedly, unabashedly.
This touched me. That this cleaner, who didn’t have much by worldly standards, was spending all the free time that he had within his job, listening to the words of God. His dedication to spirituality was a shaming reminder of my own. Of how caught up I was in my own job, in working for worldly needs, which meant how little time I dedicated to my spirituality.
We’d build a little rapport over the course of the next few weeks, exchanging Salam’s— words of peace, the Muslim greeting. I’d ask him frequently if I could borrow his prayer mat, glad that he would receive the blessings of another person having prayed on it.
The first time I stepped on the red mat, I noticed how worn out it was, particularly at the point where the forehead touches the ground in sujood. It was chilling. One, it showed how much he must have prayed on this mat, how many times he must have fallen in obedience to his Lord. And two, he’d not thrown it out despite the fraying edges, the half-worn spots. He was living within his means, not buying into the fast-fashion culture — he was content with using the same prayer mat, no matter how worn and faded, because it still served him his purpose, it still turned him back to God.
It reminds me of this hadith, or saying, of the Prophet Muhammed PBUH:
Umar ibn al-Khattab reported: I entered the room of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, while he was lying on his side over a mat. I sat down as he drew up his lower garment and he was not wearing anything else. The mat had left marks on his side. I looked at the Prophet’s cupboard and I saw a handful of barely in a small amount, the same of mimosa leaves in the corner, and a leather bag hanging to the side. My eyes started to tear up, and the Prophet said, “What makes you weep, son of Khattab?” I said, “O Prophet of Allah, why should I not cry that this mat has left marks on your side and I see little in this cupboard? Caesar and Khosrau live among fruits and springs, while you are the Messenger of Allah and His chosen, yet this is your cupboard.” The Prophet said, “O son of Khattab, are you not pleased that they are for us in the Hereafter and for them in the world?” I said, “Of course.”
Grade: Sahih (authentic) according to Muslim
I could see a similar theme amongst his other possesions which encompassed the entirety of his cubby — a cardboard box acted as a shelf-and-desk, where he kept his pocket Quran, his phone and his charger, both of which were a very outdated model. He kept a pair of worn-out, comfy-looking shoes on the side, likely to change out of his current ones when he wasn’t working. Along with a few scraps of paper, that was it. That was the entirety of his office.
I didn’t know anything about this man, besides that he mopped the floors, and occasionally made coffee for the office employees. I knew that he took out the trash at the end of the day as he locked the back door and made his way out through the workers entrance, black backpack slung over his shoulders. In his free time, he would have light conversations with the office boy. He would pray aloud, in full view of anyone walking past, and he would listen to the Quran, aloud.
This mindset of paranoia I grew up within a non-Muslim country meant that I was constantly on the watch, making sure no one saw me when I prayed, no one was looking at my phone screen if there were verses of the Quran on it. The constant fear of being judged for the foreign language clogging my ears, filling my screen. Fear of others, but no fear of God, what this man clearly had that I did not.
The higher we climb in our jobs, and the more ranks we overcome in life, we start to miss the point. Our spirituality takes a backseat. We don’t have time for anything which doesn’t yield immediate fruits. Least of all spirituality, religion. I’m not advocating for a total shutdown of our jobs and degrees, of the thing we contribute to the world. But more about, living meaningfully. Of living within our means, caring less about the yammering voices of others of no consequence. Turning back to the side that we ultimately suppress at the expense of the immediacy of this world.
If we care to look, there are lessons everywhere. God puts people in our life for a reason — most of us look to the people we have a relationship with. But what about the people we see on a daily basis, but never interact with? With whom we have a passing, commuter-esque relationship? Can we not consider these also as people whom God puts in our life for a reason?
In the 2019 Malayalam movie Helen, the main character (guess what she’s called), always makes it a point to smile at the security guard on his way to work in the morning. The security guard puts it best.
“I’ve been in this job for nearly 30 years. I see hundreds of people every day, but I’ve never spoken to anyone. But every time she goes to work and comes back, she always smiles at me without fail. She always says salam to me…when someone takes notice of one who never gets noticed, we’ll never forget their face.” — Security Guard, Helen (movie)
These people who are in the lowly jobs are still people. With complete lives, families, dreams, and aspirations. Their position in life doesn’t make them any less.
I feel these people God has put in our life because, in a selfish way, they are our small keys to happiness on drudging days of work. They’re people with whom we can exchange a smile, a salam, and move on with our lives, no strings attached. Yet they provide us with a shot glass of peace, of contentment and sometimes, as in the case of this man, a much-needed reminder — to be happy with what we have, to live within our means, to be useful to those around us, to turn to God. The people in our lives are like the streetlights along the lonely, dark road — some of them provide stronger light than others, but they all guide our way.
And I’d hope, in our small capacity, that we can do the same for them too.