catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 14 :: 2005.07.15 — 2005.07.28


Lessons from the garbage bin

Nearly a year ago I signed up with the city of Seattle to adopt a bus stop trash can. They attached a receptacle to our nearby bus stop, and every couple days my wife and I bag up the trash and add it to our own garbage. It seemed like a win-win situation—we get rewarded with free bus passes, we have an incentive to take a walk every other day, and our neighborhood gets a little cleaner. But it wasn’t long before my altruism devolved into grumbling resentment of the slobs who walk the streets. Do I really need to deal with broken bottles and melted ice cream that find their way to the sidewalk, as if the inside of the bin were just a suggestion? If anything, the neighborhood seems messier—more confident that someone else will pick up after it.

I tried to maintain a good attitude, to think of how Christ was so much more of a servant than I am with my paltry trash can. I tried to simply take satisfaction in a job well done. But my martyr complex remained, rearing its head when the bags were covered in sticky soda drippings, or reeked of black banana peels.

I’d always been taught to clean up after my messes. If I missed the rim of a trash can I would retrieve the errant throw. If I knocked over a bottle of chocolate milk, I would scrub the carpet to remove the stain. And being a klutz, I have plenty of experiences sweeping up broken glass and getting spaghetti sauce out of my shirt. If I’ve done something wrong, I’ll do my best to correct it, and I had expected the same from my fellow citizens.

But one night, as I was facing a sinkful of dirty dishes and another stack on the counter behind me, it occurred to me that I resented any cleaning that wasn’t a result of my mistake. As a klutz, I created so many messes by doing something wrong that I didn’t know how to deal with messes that were just a part of life. Even when I followed the rules, used everything just how it was intended and made no mistakes, I was still left at the end of the day with a pile of dirty dishes. Messes are not inflicted upon us, they just are a part of what it means to be alive. Life is messy. People are messy.

I had always seen taking out the trash and washing dishes as tasks of drudgery, unenvied tasks that, in our society, are most often done by the poorest and least valued. I thought of myself as noble for the extent to which I took the burden on myself. But starting that night, I tried not to see the piles of dishes as work to be done. I tried to see them as signs of life. A consistently empty sink is not the reality in a house where people live. So when I wash, I wash to get ready for the next day, for life to continue, for the stage to be set for another act. When I tend to my garbage bin, I visit it as an element in the lively bustle of city life. It’s no longer a burden, and no longer a service—it’s just active participation in community.

There has been a deeper change as well. As my wife and I have spent this last year developing and deepening community in our church, we have of course come across some rough patches. My reaction at first was the klutz philosophy: If the problem was my fault, I tried to own up to it and correct it as soon as possible. If the problem was someone else’s fault, I expected them to own up—and if they didn’t, I usually found myself taking on a grumbling spirit as I made the effort to work it out. But community, I learned, is messy. People are messy. Things don’t go wrong just because one person or the other is to blame—it’s just the nature of relationships, of collaborating with human beings. Simply by engaging in human interactions, by getting some use out of them, there’s going to be debris. Cleaning up these matters is not an act of righteous servanthood; it’s just what needs to be done.

God bless this mess, the saying goes, and I agree. Bless us with spaghetti sauce and chocolate milk, with buses to catch and places to go, with people to talk with and share our faith—with all the signs of life.

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