My New Spiritual Discipline: Garbage Pickup

It might seem odd, but I have found recently that there is meaningful value to me – not just to others or the environment – in picking up garbage. I’ve only done this a few times so far over the past couple of weeks, but if I am walking somewhere, I try to stop and pick up the larger pieces of garbage that are along the way. I don’t necessarily go out of the way more than a few feet, and usually don’t bother with a lot of the smaller items. Here are some of the things that it has led me to thinking about:

The Little Things Matter

Our lives are made up of thousands of small decisions. Most of them we don’t actually slow down enough to think about. But they add up, with those decisions becoming habits and mental patterns and even forming our character. Changing one small habit for the better can go a lot farther than you might think.

Personally, I feel like I have reached the point in my life where I have a pretty healthy worldview in fairly precise detail. To sound arrogant, I don’t think I’m too bad at implementing the kind of ethic I believe in on a lot of the big decisions in life. It may be with some grumbling, but I do usually feel like I have made the right choices on those big questions. It’s those little things that I struggle with: picking up garbage, saying good morning to somebody on the elevator, talking to somebody asking for money on the street instead of mumbling an apology and continuing on. I want to conform my character to Jesus in the little things, not just the big things.

The Environment Matters

We’re supposed to be the ones with dominion over the earth. It’s not like I’ve ever deliberately harmed the environment. I learned as a kid to reduce, reuse, and recycle (side note: am I the only one who thinks most people only practice recycle?) and not to litter. And yet my approach was essentially to do as little damage as possible. Rarely has my approach been to play even a small part in bringing healing.

For an analogy, Jesus says to do for others what we want done for us. He does not say, as many other wise religious teachers before him did, to not do to others what we don’t want done to us. The latter affords us the opportunity to stay disengaged. The former does not, and it’s the former I want to live by, including when it comes to environmental care.

Beauty Matters

For the most part, picking up a few pieces of garbage isn’t going to make a huge difference on the state of the environment. But aside from how the little things do add up, on the small scale it is still worth it. While I do enjoy nature, I live in a city and I do tend to default back to thinking in more scientific terms while struggling with anything that could really be called artistic. With that said, though, I can appreciate the difference walking down a street that has significant garbage on the road and on the laws and a street that is clean. It could be an opportunity for a simple reminder of the beauty in the world, even without escaping the city.

What If It Caught On?

On my last walk to work in Kitchener, a man walking his dog saw me stoop down for a water bottle label. He asked if I was doing my good deed by picking up garbage and I responded along the lines of “doing what I can.” He said “good for you” 2 or 3 times in a row and we continued walking. I have no idea if I inspired him to do similar, but I feel like he was open to the possibility of also doing his part to make this world a better place.

Earlier that morning I had the thought, walking along a street in Hamilton that was dirtier than usual because of the storm, picking up garbage as I went: “how many people doing just this would make this street clean?” I figured it probably would have taken about 10 people, doing as little as I was, to create a visible difference. Considering that over a few hours span each morning probably 200 walk that street to the transit station, 10 people doing very little work is not all that much. So what if that could happen? The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed after all: it starts slow but steadily grows into something huge and powerful.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Mike

    Great spiritual discipline! ..Because of my interest in Monasticism I developed the spiritual discipline of hand-washing all of our dishes at home myself (instead of using the dish washer).. and my wife loves the help 🙂

    “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” Zen proverb