Something about the water quality where I live combined with the age or variety of the toilet that came with the house creates persistent water stains on the inside of the bowl. This drives me a little nuts. I don’t like using chemical cleaners, because they’re lousy for the world’s water, and also I get nasty headaches from strong smells.

Last week I broke down and bought a bottle of bowl cleaner anyway, figuring maybe if I could get the stains off once I could then keep them off with but less effort and toxicity. I turned on the exhaust fan, covered my nose with a scarf, squirted the awful stuff up under the lip of the bowl, and proceeded with the scrubbing instructions.

When I was done, I left it alone for a bit while I retreated to fresh air, and then returned to assess. I knew the bowl was cleaner than it had been, because I’d seen the water turn scummy as I’d scrubbed, but the stains prevailed. I sighed with a measure of disappointment and said out loud to no one: “Well, it is cleaner, but it doesn’t look any cleaner.”

At which point I noticed that my true mission had not been to get the toilet as clean as I could, but rather to get it to look as clean as I could. This was by no means the first time I have caught myself getting swept up in the work of getting things to look a particular way such that I stray from what I claim to care about (and even what I do actually care about). Apparently I needed reminding.

What the toilet pointed out has much bigger implications and cautionary content for other areas of life more weighty. Where else, I wondered, am I striving to get something to look the way I’d like it to at the expense of the actual condition of the thing? It’s one thing to  care about how something looks, which I find I often do, and plenty of the time it’s probably harmless. But when it’s displacing or replacing the concern for how things actually are… that calls for some reassessing.