I have a lovely neighbor who likes to believe that those beer cans by the roadside blew out of the back of someone’s truck on the way to recycling. I’m not so forgiving. I hate that mess in the ditch with a passion, and resent the perpetrators with a purple passion. I feel personally disrespected when the land I love is trashed.
We all know that garbage begets garbage. When there’s junk in the ditch, what’s one more cup or can? A famous study about the impact of graffiti in neighborhoods found that if graffiti isn’t removed quickly, further and more significant vandalism results. Eventually, in areas that are not cleaned up, crime rates will increase. The harm piles up.
Piling on doesn’t just occur by roadsides. Most small communities have at least one Olympic-gold-medal gossip, able to shred any reputation with a few choice words. What a mess the gossips leave for others to clean up: wounded feelings, broken relationships, damaged trust, retaliation. Garbage indeed begets garbage.
A true confession: I was a drinking, driving teenager. I tossed beer cans out of the car so I wouldn’t get caught with them. But my actions weren’t simply about avoiding detection. In my mind, flinging stuff out the window was a way to say, “Screw you!” to the horrible little town where I grew up. I hated the small-mindedness, the judgments, the gossip and innuendo. For my teenaged self, every beer I drank, every bottle I threw, meant “Get your nasty mouths off my life. Leave me alone so I can become something bigger and better than this.”
I know, this was not the best way to declare independence. But I had limited capacity in those days. I was not mature enough to sit with my own pain. I didn’t know how to choose life rather than tangle endlessly with meanness. I had given my brokenness the power to define me: if you treat me like trash, I’m gonna respond with trash. As the author Parker Palmer says, “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.”
What I threw fell on innocent ground.
The garbage that’s not dealt with, the garbage that we allow to define our world—be it internal or external nastiness, the crap flying out my window or spewing out of my mouth—that garbage distorts our souls, wounds our fellows, harms our ecosystem. The occasional snarky remark becomes habitual; the bottle tossed on the beach cuts a child’s foot; anger is unleashed on a vulnerable person. The refuse we refuse to deal with deforms us individually and collectively.
Chances are, you’re not the one who dumped the garbage. That doesn’t mean you can’t clean it up. For literal litter, grab a bag and walk a bit of highway today. For metaphorical trash, refuse to laugh at or repeat that juicy, harmful tidbit. If the garbage is between your ears, ask for help. Practice gratitude. Pay attention.
Yes, garbage begets garbage. But more significantly, respect begets respect.