Yesterday a man was walking toward me on the sidewalk, unwrapping a sandwich. Just as we passed, he flicked the paper wrapper from his hand into the street.
This didn't happen by accident. The wind didn't seize the wrapper from his fingers. The man wasn't disabled; he had full use of his hands. Confirming the act's intentionality was his expression: first, a grimace of get-rid-of-this impatience —then, watching the paper sail away, he smiled.
Three words suddenly blazed across my mind, then hung there, shooting sparks, as if written in flames:
Mister, you're bad.
For a millisecond, I froze with shock, then flushed with shame. Like most of us, I've always been taught never to judge, especially to deride total strangers as "bad."
Yet here I was, doing just that. Another sensation flooded me. Less familiar than shock and shame, it felt fresh. Effervescent.
It was the bright frisson of freedom, because the truth had set me free.
Truth is subjective. In other ways, that man might be wonderful. He might excel at math. He might feed the poor. In the eyes of friends and family, his deity and himself, this man might be a saint.
I think littering is really, really bad. Rail all we might at corporations, we as individuals can do at least one thing to thank, respect, conserve and bless the earth.
We can refrain from littering.
Few acts are easier than carrying debris to the nearest refuse receptacle—or home—rather than discarding it wherever we sit or stand. Since few acts are easier, since anyone over age twelve can comprehend the social and environmental basics, what kind of adult would litter anyway—stealthily, or even publicly, wearing a smile?
A lazy, rude, ungrateful, hateful adult, that's what kind. An adult lacking respect—for the planet, for whatever waterways his or her litter might befoul, for any creatures it might snare, sicken or kill. And disrespect too for whomever among us sees those crushed cups oozing liquid onto subway floors, wrappers littering roadsides, cans washing up with the tide, diapers dotting parking lots and wonders, sickened: Must I pick those up and discard them correctly? Because someone should. But ugh. And now I feel bad for letting it lie there.
In these ways and more, litterers say: Screw you all.
Such narcissistic, sociopathic self-indulgence, such loathing encapsulated in an exquisitely simple gesture -- nearly weightless object, now unwanted, ceases contact with the human hand—is in my eyes a litmus test that tells me all I need to know about the person executing it.
In which case: Thank you, wicked litterer, for showing me exactly what you are and thus what I am not.
Thank you for showing me, by doing something I deem bad, that at least in this one dimension I am good.
We who struggle with self-loathing reach such conclusions all too rarely. We compare ourselves to others reflexively—and almost always negatively. We've been taught not to judge others, yet we judge ourselves habitually—and harshly. Yet judgment—aka discernment —is a life-saving tool. The ibex judges the lion as a predator and acts accordingly. Judging one sport as preferable to another, a child gains a lifelong passion.
I have many flaws, but I am a good person in that I don't litter, and I can carry this fact with me always.
By what litmus tests might you judge yourself a good person—even if it means judging others as "worse" or "bad" by comparison?