You’re a 5-year-old kid.
Yes, you. Right now. You’re 5 years old and you’re playing quietly with your chalk, and Johnny snot-nose next to you has blocks out, which he’s throwing all over the ground. It doesn’t even look like a fort, but he’s making stupid cowboy noises going “pow! pow! pow” and wiping his cootie face all over his sleeve. It’s annoying you, and keeping you from concentrating on the intricate fur strokes in your purple dog.
The teacher has her back to you, so you lean over and say, “Hey, Johnny. Those guys over there are playing aliens. Go play with them.” And he zooms off into the spaceship-filled horizon, leaving behind a trail of blocks strewn across the ground.
The teacher walks over and catches you in a compromising pose, half in front of your easel and half bent down over a block.
“What a mess!” she declares, in her Miss Manners voice. “Clean this up, you.”
And you ever-so-politely say, “But, Miss Teacher, I didn’t make this mess.”
“I don’t care who made it, lady. You clean it up.”
There are no words more unfair to a child than that. “I don’t care who did this. YOU fix it.”
Unfortunately, the lesson tends to be lost on children, because they don’t understand the concept of personal responsibility yet – and this approach is, to be blunt, dumb-dumb stupidhead.
But there is something uniquely magic in the concept of cleaning up a mess you’ve found once you’re grown up and can grasp the rewards in taking responsibility for the situations you find yourself in – whether or not you were the one who caused them.
Give A Hoot! Give An Epic Hoot.
I’ve been taking walks around my new place, as it backs up to the most glorious little open space full of mesas and valleys and other naturey goodness. But lining the road, caught up in and around the barbed wire fence, is trash. Lots and lots and lots of trash.
Lest you think this is some kind of treatise on the benefits of not littering, this is not that. At all. I know you people, and you already don’t litter. You don’t. Period.
I will say, though, that it floors me that people still litter SO much in this day and age. I mean, really, did NO ONE watch Woodsy Owl on Saturday mornings in the 1980’s?
What I want to talk about today – and it goes along with the thinking outside the box theme we’re talking about this month – is how to use random trash as an exercise in real, often difficult-to-digest personal responsibility.
There are few things more annoying than thinking you have the responsibility to clean up a mess someone else made. It’s far easier to complain and huff (and sometimes high-horse it around town) than to just fix something that’s bothering you.
In a chat today with my friend Ashley, she talked a little about the Buddhist faith and the concept that, as soon as an issue comes into your awareness and you have the capacity to fix it without infringing on another’s freedom, it is your responsibility to do so. Simply by being aware of it, it is now yours.
“Do not give your attention to what others do or fail to do; give your attention to what you do or fail to do.” – The Dhammapada (a Buddhist text)
Picking up litter you come across? This is the quickest, easiest way to put this concept into practice.
Cleaning Up Your Trash Is How I Got My Start
Okay, maybe not your trash, but trash in general.
Fifteen or so years ago, when I first dipped my toe in the waters of spiritual growth, I had to start figuring out ways to be more personally responsible.
Because I was hell on wheels in the blame department, sisters. Believe you me. I was one hot mess of a perpetual victim. Nothing was my fault, and I wasn’t shy about twisting motives and words to make it sound like there was no earthly way I could be responsible for the situation I was in.
Heaven help everyone who had to deal with me.
So I started small – by picking up trash I saw on the side of the road. Eventually, this taught me that, no matter what circumstance I may find myself in and no matter who I thought put me there, it is always my responsibility to find a way to learn from it, and to clean it up.
It’s scary to take responsibility for things – for your life and the wacky situations you find yourself in. It’s easier to think that there’s an all-knowing creature out there named government/parents/lawyers/younameit who have the responsibility of solving your problems, or the onus of fixing your world.
These people do not exist.
Okay, so they do exist in the factual sense, but they won’t fix your world for you. Only YOU can do that. And you can ONLY do that by not worrying about what everyone else is or isn’t doing with themselves. The more energy and thought you give to the problems you perceive everyone else is causing, the less time you have to realize your own potential as a human being.
And I’m telling you right now, misters and missies, that the quickest way to get a glimpse of this realization is to pick up someone else’s trash if it’s bothering you.
The Secret Is In the Attitude Sauce
Now, you can read this post and then go about your day, picking up trash and STILL huffing and puffing about the consciousless acts of immoral teenagers. If you do it with that attitude, though, you’re not going to get much out of it.
In fact, you’ll probably leave the world a worse place by approaching it in this way. Negativity breeds, and its babies are giant, trash-throwing angry monsters.
Instead, look at this exercise as an opportunity.
(All personal responsibility is an opportunity – and VERY fulfilling, at that.)
It’s an opportunity to practice your ability to change your world, regardless of what anyone else has or hasn’t done. It’s a simple, small way to leave behind something better. It’s a way to stop placing blame, and start being more effective as a person.
I want to finish with one more thought, and it’s my favorite thing in the world and I’ve probably mentioned it a hundred billion times, but you can apply it to EVERY situation in which you want to “think outside the box” and come to a new perspective on your life.
I’m about to show you how, in this one small way.
Years ago, I heard this radio program where the announcer was talking to researchers studying what makes some people lucky and what makes other people unlucky. The ONLY differentiating factor between the two types of people were that lucky people BELIEVED THEY WERE LUCKY. At nearly all times, in nearly all situations.
How can you apply THAT to trash?
Whenever you stumble upon a wadded up newspaper or an empty bottle of Gatorade along the street, think to yourself, “I’m really lucky to have this opportunity to clean up the world just a little tiny bit. How fortunate.”
It may seem silly, but you’ll be that much closer to understanding your very own power through personal responsibility.
Go rock the responsibility in your world.
I don’t care who made the mess – YOU clean it up! But only if you can do it with a smile. 🙂
I’m always trying to get people to accept personal responsibility. Of course, I’m crude and say “own your sh*t”. 🙂 It’s all about owning your stuff. I love this post and am excited about the Outside of the Box Tuesday’s as well! Love your blog CB!
Considering that I was born in ’88, no, no I did not watch Woodsy Owl (whatever that may be). However, if I EVER was caught throwing something on the ground instead of in the trash can, I had to clean up the whole area, because I “helped make it that way”. It was not fun. My grandmother would even stop the car if she saw me throw something out the window and I would then get the honor of picking up all the roadside trash until she believed that I was done. If we weren’t going anywhere in particular and weren’t going to be late, it could be a long time before I was done. Believe you me, I no longer have any impulses to throw anything on the ground, and I still clean up trash from the roadside. Because it’s my road too, and I “helped make it that way”.
Thanks for this one Betty!! Awesome post-very much needed!
I really like this post, and very timely, as I’ve been feeling way overwhelmed, but how about when the mess is your kids, and you’re trying to teach them responsibility?
When we lived in Berkely, we had a great park down by the bay, which let the kids build and paint and create – it was ten times more fun than a normal park, but when you went in, before your kid could get his saw, hammer, paint or whatever, s/he had to find ten pieces of trash or bent nails or whatever, and turn those in. It wasn’t “their” trash but it provided the lesson that we all contribute, we’re part of this together, we take care of each other’s mess and take responsibility for this space, and that with opportunities come responsibility. I like that. I can’t help but pick up trash now if I’m in a place to do so and even (embarrassing) pull weeds in public places, what the heck. Chip in. It won’t kill you.
The idea of having kids eat a carrot before they tuck in to other snacks is awesome. We do that too – or did when my kids were that age. Not a big fan of throwing stuff out the car window, though. The “someone/something else will eat it/clean it/deal with it” out of sight out of mind isn’t a great lesson. Trash is trash; it doesn’t belong out the car window.
Keep a bag in the car for that, and compost at home, it’ll teach the kids a couple good lessons instead of just the one about healthy snacking.
Wow. This is powerful. I totally am a victim. & even if I am in a good mood & decide to be helpful I still whinge about how its someone else’s responsibility.
Total reality check. Thanks
I pick up trash when I’m out. It’s second nature to me now, and it surprises me when other people don’t pick up trash. My housemates, for example, were concerned that someone had been using their outdoor recycling bin to stash beer cans for the last few weekends. Then they thought to ask me if my husband has been drinking on the weekends. When I told them that I’d been picking up beer cans from the park in the mornings, they got it.
Also from my housemates — the thought, “Don’t touch that it’s dirty.” Yeah, it’s true, I’m touching someone else’s water bottle/beer can/candy wrapper. But I figure as long as I don’t touch the part where they put their mouth, don’t touch my mouth/eyes after picking up the bottle, and wash my hands, I’m in the clear. My response has become, “My hands will wash.” And now my housemates have started picking up garbage too. 🙂
I’m a fan of littering. I do it. Not the McDonald’s variety you see along highways- I don’t eat that crap, and well, it’s a waste in so many ways. But, I AM a fan of littering food. We live far away from everything, and the second we get into the car, i hear “I’m hungry”. So, we invented CarRideCarrots. Everyone gets one, and that must be eaten before we can partake in other snacks we have taken along or dining out somewhere. WE TOSS THE TOPS. We also toss apple cores. I understand what you all are saying, I’m not trying to find an exception, but I’m saying it’s not ALL black and white. We toss these scraps on purpose. They will biodegrade or get eaten. THEY WILL STAY OUT OF LANDFILLS. I feel in my heart we are doing the right thing. It isn’t completely black and white.
While I do agree that ‘biodegradable littering’ is a totally different critter than ‘plastics littering’, the side of the road is definitely not the place to do it responsibly.
When there’s organic materials (ie. food scraps) lying about, it attracts mice, squirrels, other little animals – we all know that. Where there’s little animals scurrying about, birds of prey (hawks and owls, mostly) come in to catch them. I used to volunteer at a rehab centre for birds of prey – and the place was full of birds that had been hit by cars. By far the most common reason these raptors were injured was due to food waste at the side of roads – most often the birds would be close enough to the road that they’d get swept into the stream of traffic by the wind coming off the back of a vehicle, then struck (or get tangled in roofracks, bike racks, etc.). Sounds crazy?? I’ve easily seen hundreds of birds killed/injured/euthanised because of this.
I love your CarRideCarrots – but please don’t throw food out of your car windows – think of the owls. Its better to bring it home to your compost (your garden will thank you too!).
Just yesterday this was exactly what I did on the beach. It’s getting to be a good habit now. Instead of thinking what a mess has been made by others, I think about what I can do to prevent this plastic (or styrofome or whatever) from getting lost in the ocean or eaten by animals. Now I just have to add a smile to it.
Well once again, talk about synchronicity. Just lately I’ve started being super peeved by people who leave shopping carts littering grocery store parking lots. I always try to collect one to return along with mine, but the thoughtless attitude toward the store employees who have to gather the carts, and the plants in the flowerbeds crushed by pushing the cart partway in, and the shoppers who can’t park in certain spots because they are full of carts–it all just really annoyed me.
But this post is a reality check for me. Indeed, I should be paying attention to what I do or don’t, not what other people did or didn’t. Thanks for that.
What a great post! I get so mad when I see trash all over my yard after the middle school kids pass through on their way home, but I had resolved to pick it up, and now I can do so with a smile instead of a frown. Thanks for reminding me that personal responsibility begins with choosing to be happy and choosing to have a good attitude and outlook. 🙂
Also wanted to tell you that my 2-year-old son has recently taken to rubbing foods on his face when he eats, mostly over his mouth and chin area, and when he rubbed an orange on his face this evening, I remembered reading in your book about how great it is to rub raw fruit on your face and encouraged him to rub more orange on his face; whereas if I hadn’t read your book, I probably would have told him to quit doing it. LOL 🙂
I love it!!!
My mother has always picked up other people’s trash on the sides of the roads. We, as children,didn’t think it looked too cool. I am changing my attitude as I get older, but confess to sometimes passing by, and pretending not to see some rubbish, if I don’t feel inclined to get my hands dirty. This is a great way to look at it.
There’s a certain irony in the comments of people who want other people to read this post!
Wonderful post. Thank you!
I have to say I went on vacation to the keys this past week and I spent some of it cleaning up after people. There was trash all over the otherwise pristine beaches, and it made me mad. I enjoyed how beautiful it was that I couldn’t let a coke can, Styrofoam cup, or plastic bag get into the ocean. It actually made me a lot happier to clean up the beach on my walks and it made my husband giggle. But it was fun : )
Heather :) :) :)
I really enjoyed reading your post today. AS I reading this, I kept thinking of my aunt. Whenever we go for walks together, she always brings an extra bag to collect little bits of trash along the road. She always says that if she doesn’t do it, then no one else will. It makes her smile to pick up a little bit of trash and then look at the road and see it clean 🙂 Love and hugs from the ocean shores of California, Heather 🙂
I have been taking my kids on “clean-up walks” since they were old enough to help! We used to call them garbage walks, but then people looked at me funny when she would say we are going on a garbage walk.! We live in a nice suburban area, but still see more trash than I would like to see (none would be nice!). We take a plastic bag for any recyclable items, so the bag can be recycled too, and a separate bag for any other trash that can’t be recycled which then goes into our trash bin at home. We make it a game to see who can find the most! The whole time they are excited to find things. We talk about why it is so important to clean all the junk up even if it’s not our trash…”because the earth don’t have thumbs” said my oldest when she was 4. Ahh…out of the mouths of babes!
Good thoughts! There is a fence around an open space across the street. The wind tends to blow any trash/litter to that fence. I don’t even notice it much anymore, but when I do it tends to just irritate me. It’s not MY land, MY fence, or MY trash. But after reading this – “an issue comes into your awareness and you have the capacity to fix it
without infringing on another’s freedom, it is your responsibility to do
so” – I guess it is MINE. Perhaps we’ll be going out for a clean up time this weekend. 🙂 Thanks for making me think.
My son & I used to do something similar in our old neighborhood. A lot of times on trash day the wind would be blowing and the neighbors now empty trashcans would blow out into the street. We decided that it would be a good idea to move them out of the street 1. because it was a nice thing to do and 2. it was really a life-safety issue. No one ever thanked us but that is not why we did it. We wanted to make the street look better and maybe keep someone from being harmed.
Oh how I adore you! Let me count the ways…… (still counting)
Fantastic and beautiful post. Very inspiring. Thank you!
In 2 weeks I join a dedicated troup of Trail Cleaners, we will be cleaning up part of the Loyalsock Trail in Williamsport, PA. Armed with trash bags, gloves and brush lopers and lunch my boyfriend and I will work to keep this beautiful trail clean and clear of fire hazzards. I missed my opportunity to help clean up Lycoming Creek from the September 2011 flood that destroyed so many hopes and homes. There may be another opportunity for me to help, I will have to wait and see.
What a wonderful perspective! Whenever I am out in nature, I always pick up trash (with a smile) knowing I am leaving it better than I found it. It just feels good, and I don’t even think twice about it. However, I am quite the opposite when it comes to my kids and my husband with their messes at home. I loathe cleaning up after them, and try my best to make them clean up after themselves. And yes, I have said many a time “I don’t care whose mess it is, YOU clean it up!” Now I can see how that is so wrong, and I will try to change my thought process and model a better behavior for my kids to follow. Thanks for allowing me to see outside the box!
When my family is traveling, and in grandmas backyard, I find my kids picking up trash. Both thoughts cross my mind as I inwardly cringe at the uckiness and smile proudly at my children ” I need to stash gloves and trash bags in all vehicles, and, why don’t they do this at home.” Then as the kids troop by throwing the trash in the back of the truck one has taken on the quote I spout ” leave it better than you found it”.
I try to “leave it better than I found it.” But I sometimes have a tissue or piece of paper get caught by the wind as I’m getting out of the car. Health problems in recent years make it impossible to go running after it, so I really don’t mind picking up a few pieces of other people’s trash. I even pick up trash behind the chutes at the rodeo – I get to go back there as part of the “press.”
Pastor told the story of a king and his friend. The friend was always saying, “That’s gooood!” It drove him nuts. One day, the two were out hunting and the king’s gun misfired and took off his thumb. The friend says, “That’s goooood!” It infuriated the king. He threw him in jail for a year. The king was then out hunting alone and was overtaken by cannibals. They were about to eat him when they saw his thumb missing. Believing it was bad mojo to eat someone less than perfect, they let him go. The king then felt bad and went to go see his friend in prison. The friend says, “That’s goooood!!!” The king could not believe his friend’s great outlook and questioned it. The friend said, “Had I not been here in prison, I would have been hunting with you!”
Wow…this works in so many ways! A good reminder, thanks for your words of wisdom and the incredibly witty way you write. Love it :0)
This is an absolutely fantastic post!!! My tweens will get/have to read this when they get home from school. Thank YOU!!!
Beautiful post. As a Buddhist, I especially loved the Dhammapada quote. Everyone has the mentality of “someone else did that, so I won’t clean it up” which is why our planet is the way it is.
Great post! My fiance and I have been practicing the “we are so very lucky and fortunate” mantra for years now, and it totally works. Whenever I get delayed in traffic or take a wrong turn, I always remind myself how lucky I am to have gone that way — maybe to see a new vista, or perhaps to have avoided an accident that I could have been involved in.
I still have to work on picking up trash more regularly, though 🙂
We practice that mantra too! When I’m stuck in traffic, I think of how lucky I am to have a car and a home to be driving to in the first place. To have food on the table, a roof overhead and people who love me is the best reminder of life’s joys.
I have really been working on the not-complaining thing for the past year. It was difficult, mostly because I am no good at small talk and tend to complain in clever ways when I run out of words. And taking responsibility followed in the proper order of things.
It also makes it guilt free to be smug when I’m in a mood; I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing or not but total immersion seems to be a good way for me to get out of the mood faster.
Whatever works, right?
This is exactly what I need to be reminded of right now. What a great post!
I wonder if my almost-9-year-old could get what he needs to get out of this post.
This is one I will reread often.