Shifting Perspectives

Seeing the sacred and profane in the same object

Scanned from negative

One of my long-standing pet peeves has been littering. I even won a speech contest by ranting and raving about it in my high school years.

Linda and I were running errands recently and we saw several places strewn with litter. Two years ago when I contacted the person in charge of cleaning up litter in the city, he not only encouraged me to report areas of gross negligence, he followed through, even to the extent of notifying his counterparts in surrounding municipalities that were not in his jurisdiction. Gratefully, the areas I brought to his attention get cleaned up.

Around that same time I was picking up trash in the neighborhood on my too infrequent walks for exercise, when I picked up this beer can. Wearing my “waste management hat,” I saw it as garbage and the negative thoughts came pouring in. How many such cans are going into landfills or clogging up sewer drains? How much of the earth’s supply of aluminum is being used to deliver gazillions of one-use substances every month that take minutes to consume? And I wondered about people who litter. What are they thinking? Or are they not thinking at all about what they’re doing? Also, how does a person get to the point where they have so little or no regard for their neighborhood, community or planet, much less an aesthetic sensibility that would make them think twice about littering?

Some years back a young colleague observed a neighbor drop a bag of half-consumed fast food onto the yard of the apartment where they both lived. My friend knew this person well enough that he could ask about it. The man’s reply was “Why should I care? Nobody else cares. What has the world ever done for me?” (A direct quote). That was insightful. Not everyone in this country grows up like I did—in a loving family, particularly one in which consideration for others and respect for property was strictly enforced—and modeled. And not all educational systems in the United States teach young people about the impact we are having on the environment, and that something (recycling, not littering and cleanup initiatives) can be done about it. I was recently surprised when I spoke with a 50+ woman who hadn’t even heard the word “ecology.”

Waste is a global challenge. Travelers to Germany report that their land and cityscapes are largely litter-free. On the other hand, there are countries where littering and letting garbage collect is the only option. Clearly, how a society handles its waste is a complex issue, conditioned by historical, geographical, cultural, political and economic circumstances. As such, less developed countries deserve understanding in this regard rather than judgment on my part.

Closer to home and on a more scientific note, research by Keep America Beautiful has determined that people litter because they feel no sense of ownership, even though areas such as parks and beaches are public property. They believe that it’s the job of park maintenance or highway workers to pick up after them. Their other findings include:

  • People of all ages and social backgrounds have been observed littering, but individuals under 30 were more likely to litter than those who are older. In fact, age, and not gender, is a significant predictor of littering behavior.
  • 18% of all littered items end up in our streams and waterways as pollution.
  • 1. 9 billion tons of litter ends up in the ocean every year.
  • $11.5 billion is spent every year to clean up litter.
  • 50% of littered items are cigarette butts.

On the positive side, over the past decade, the Keep America Beautiful network has:

  • Mobilized 10’s of millions of volunteers and participants.
  • Picked up over half a BILLION pounds of litter and debris.
  • Recycled over 250M pounds of materials.
  • Cleaned over half a million miles of roads, trails, and along waterways.
  • Planted millions of trees, flowers, and bulbs.

When I arrived home from my walk and separated out a bottle and this can for recycling, the dew on its surface forced me to put on my photographer’s hat. Suddenly, the smashed can was an object of beauty. And the negative thoughts it evoked in me made it, well, evocative. I had been thinking about using this image for a blog contemplation, but I’d been putting it off because I couldn’t decide on a theme. Then, I saw a bumper-sticker that read, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

I laughed. But it was just the impetus I needed. My perspective shifted! One moment I’m seeing this  beer can as litter, evidence of someone’s not caring and not taking responsibility for their neighborhood or planet. Moments later, I see it as an an object appealing to my aesthetic. And then a bumper-sticker comes along and points to the can’s place in a broader context. The can didn’t change, but my way of seeing it did. Oh, and what  had to happen for that can and beer to even exist? A contemplation for another day.

So this contemplation reinforces for me, how even the smallest, seemingly innocuous and possibly annoying things in life have their place. How I see them determines my mental-emotional experience. It’s not that I gained a greater appreciation for litter. I didn’t. It still bothers me. But I’m more at peace with it now, seeing that everything, even litter on the streets, is evidence that all is well and the universe wants us to be happy.

Ultimately the best way of teaching, whether the subject is mathematics, history, or philosophy, is to make the students aware of the beauties involved. We need to teach our children unitive perception, the Zen experience of being able to see the temporal and the eternal simultaneously, the sacred and the profane in the same object.

Zen Teaching



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