Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Walking to lunch today, an elderly couple, maybe in their ‘80’s or ‘90’s, were out for a walk and coming towards me. This is always a sweet thing to see, but, then something even sweeter happened. He stopped, shifted his cane to his left hand, bent over, picked up a piece of trash and threw it into the dumpster. I told him that I had seen what he did and wanted to shake his hand.
It might seem like a little thing, but when was the last time you picked up a piece of trash? Oh, some of my readers do, I’m sure. I myself picked up a piece of Styrofoam garbage on a particularly windy day to keep it from blowing further just a few days ago, but even if you do pick up garbage like this, you will still recognize how rare it actually is for somebody to do this when it is not “their job”. To me, this goes beyond the act itself. It speaks of the character of the person.
In this day and age, such an act is, to at least an extent, a dangerous thing to do. When you pick up a piece of garbage, you don’t know it’s source, what viruses or bacterial infections the originator might have, or how infectious it might be, and yet, here he is, and here I am, picking up this trash. Why risk it?
Maybe part of it is selfish. I mean, by picking it up and throwing it away means that it won’t cross our paths again. A number of years ago, they built a new forensics lab for us where I worked as a director. There was a locked door beyond which a long hallway leads down to the opposite door which was an emergency exit. Lining the hallway, on either side, are the labs, each with a secured door in its own right and with windows through which an approved observer can watch what is happening beyond that door. The building, and the hallway, were beautiful, and down that hallway, on the ground, was a single, solitary, abandoned wood screw sitting on the ground. I don’t know where it came from, but being who I am, I couldn’t leave it. Yes, I picked it up. But, also true to my nature, I decided to perform a little experiment. Instead of throwing it away, I placed it gently, lovingly on a window sill, safe from where it could be stepped on or kicked, just to see how long it would sit there before somebody decided to finish the job I had started and throw it away.
It was still there a couple of years later on my last day of work.
Okay, I played a little game with it, but the reason to pick up trash is deeper than that. In the case of the screw, there was the risk of somebody stepping on it, but the burger container was just to take it off of the street. The garbage this man picked up was no real danger either, so why do we do it?
The simple answer is for everybody. A man who will go through the effort, and for him it was more of an effort than it would have been for me because of his struggle with mobility, is not thinking of himself. (Please forgive me for my use of masculine pronouns here; it could have just as easily been his wife, but this was the husband, a man, who did this.) He was thinking about the general good, the aesthetics of the area, the inconvenience of having it there for others. Such a small act, but a reflection of a large heart.
More than once I’ve written about the need of people to look out for each other, far more than we often see in this day and age. Does an act like this mean that he would lay his life on the line for another? I don’t know, although considering his age, I’m guessing that he very well may have already. But, looking out for others doesn’t have to be so grandiose, either. Simple acts, like picking up garbage, donating blood, or checking on somebody as they weep to be sure they are okay is really all it takes. Taking ownership of our environment, where we live counts.
When I worked with the police department, there was a neighborhood that was, oh, let’s say “problematic”. There was an abandoned lot in the neighborhood, and the police decided to put in a community garden. At first they tended to it in their off hours, but as the neighbors realized it was there, they started taking it over, tending to it, planting vegetables, and managing it, and crime for the neighborhood, the entire neighborhood, dropped. Ownership, taking personal responsibility, and caring was what it took, and eventually they started to get to know each other, and that caring grew from the garden, to caring for each other.
Wouldn’t it be nice if more people could do this?