Cleaning up messes

Being a grandfather has given me a greater awareness of those who will come after me. It isn’t that I was unaware of future generations before I became a father, or if having children somehow focused my attention away from the future. It is just that being a grandfather affords me all the more reason to be concerned about the future and the messes that we leave for future generations. There is an often used proverb, sometimes said to have a Native American source, but more likely from the pen of environmentalist David Brower, that goes like this: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Dr. Jane Goodall has a different version of the proverb:

"Someone said that we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, but borrow it from out children. Look at the world around us. The line is a lie! We aren't borrowing from our children. Borrowing means that we will pay it back, but we aren't paying back. We are STEALING from our children...."

I am struck by how often we leave messes for others to clean up. An entire blog and more could be devoted to big messes like the 176,000 gallons of oil that was spilled into Ash Coulee Creek, a tributary of the Little Missouri River near Belfield, N.D. The company that operates that particular pipeline has experienced at least three dozen oil spills, including dumping 30,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River. The pipeline is equipped with electronic monitoring equipment that is supposed to detect leaks, but that equipment failed and the leak went on without detection until someone saw the oil spewing from the ruptured pipe.

At least with an oil spill, there are people out there, working in the cold temperatures, trying to clean up the mess. About 37,000 gallons of oil have been recovered so far.

We aren’t very good at cleaning up after ourselves. Anyone who has visited a public restroom knows that. Last night I attended a Christmas party held at an upscale hotel in our community and, after wiping down the countertop that had been ignored by previous patrons, I picked up a half dozen paper towels that had been thrown on the floor instead of placed in the wastebasket, which was not overfilled. I know that the hotel has employees who regularly clean the restroom but they can’t clean it after every single use. It isn’t just hotel restrooms. Our church has a janitorial service that cleans regularly, but I still find myself cleaning restrooms in our building when the messes left behind can’t wait for the next visit of the janitor.

I pick up litter from the church parking lot almost every day. And, frankly, it isn’t much better when I go inside. A quick trip through our sanctuary last week netted a large stack of paper for recycling. There had been a public concert in the room the previous week and some of the left-behind paper was programs from that concert. But there were also worship bulletins from our own services, used tissues on the floor and on the seats, pew cards with doodles and even one shopping list left behind.

Ours seems to be a careless generation that doesn’t have much skill at picking up after ourselves. And we really chafe at someone who reminds us of this truth. I’ve heard the word “environmentalist” spit out as if it were a curse. I’ve been in groups of people who see regulations providing for clean water and clean air as unnecessary regulation of business.

It would seem, however, that we need the discipline of regulations in order to be forced to clean up after ourselves.

In our neighborhood we use wheeled toters, provided by the city for garbage collection. The toters for garbage are literally twice as large as the ones for recycling. We find the large garbage toter to be much too big for our needs and rarely fill it beyond half way. On the other hand, I make weekly trips to the recycling center because the curbside recycling doesn’t accept some items that are easy to recycle such as newspaper and cardboard. Office paper and magazines are a bit more challenging, but not impossible to recycle in our community. Still, on an average garbage pickup day, most of my neighbor’s toters are filled to overflowing and it is common for the garbage crews to have to pick up loose trash bags that are left at curbside that won’t fit into the toters. And some of those plastic bags will take 500 to 1,000 years to decompose in the landfill. Of course that is just an estimate. We’ve only been using plastic bags for about 50 years so no one know for sure how long it will take. Just having the trash hauled away from the neighborhood isn’t really getting rid of it. The mountains of garbage in our landfills pose a problem that will be around for generations to come.

I know that I am guilty of consuming way more than I need and that I have not been good at cleaning up after my self. I try to be responsible, but it is easy to be distracted by all kinds of other priorities. I could easily spend all day every day cleaning up messes, but I turn my attention to other projects.

So I think of the messes that we are leaving for our grandchildren and the generations that will follow them. One of the gifts we receive from them is the awareness of those messes.

It isn’t just the planet. It isn’t just the rooms we visit. We certainly have messes to clean up in both of those arenas. More importantly, we have been careless and messy with the way we think. It isn’t just the counter and the seats in the restroom that need to be wiped clean. We could use a bit of cleaning up our thoughts and wiping down our hearts. Sullied hearts and minds are no gift to our grandchildren, either.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!