Looking back, I can remember a few stories that stick out as pivotal moments in my life. One of these moments occurred when I threw a candy wrapper out the window as a young boy.
My Dad, who I love tremendously, was as angry as I’ve seen him and I was afraid. Why was he upset, after all it was just a candy wrapper? My behavior of littering conflicted entirely with what he stood for and he was rightfully mad as hell. We pulled over on the side of the road immediately and picked up several pieces of litter to make up for my mistake.
I’ve had many years to think about this incident.
What was it that was so bad about littering? We live in the age of non-judgement, and it was a public road, so what was the big deal? Most litter after all, doesn’t really hurt anyone, and value judgements are subjective, right?
After thinking about this for a long time, I realized that there is a higher standard of good that exists outside of the realm of popularity, fads, or the particular age we live in and it applies to many things, including litter. Litter is ugly. Littering conflicted with my Dad’s value system and thankfully for me, he wouldn’t tolerate it.
When we see people litter or see litter itself, we’re disgusted by it. Even if it’s sanitary paper, aluminum, or plastic that isn’t technically going to hurt anyone, we still feel disgusted by it.
If we are naturally repulsed by litter and other things like this, what are we to do? To obsessively pursue beauty at every turn is pretentious at best, and snobby at worst. But at the very least, we can set standards for ourselves and look at a pursuit of goodness as way of life, or a philosophy of being.
There’s a beauty in nature- a blazing fire, a sunset over the ocean, or a herd of buffalo out west somewhere in the summer hills of Montana. We seek out and are awed by the spontaneous order of nature and the constant birth and destruction it brings. With the canyon, the ice-capped mountain, or the litter of lab puppies we don’t need anyone to explain beauty and say “look it’s beautiful”. It just is. And we know it is.
We can instill a sense of order and higher thinking into our lives. We aren’t animals bound by our instincts because what is instinctual is not always what’s right. An animal wouldn’t think twice to pick up and dispose of litter. Even though we have a connection to all other living things around us we are different from them. We are capable of more, of higher thinking, and following standards we set for ourselves.
I was riding out through the bucolic hills and countryside to set up for an afternoon dove hunt recently, and all along the side of the road was…… litter. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of repulsion. Even if the majority of the people who live in this area aren’t repulsed by it, it’s still objectively ugly to look at.
One of my favorite writers is the late Englishman Christopher Hitchens, the famous Oxford-educated socialist, atheist, and provocateur. Even though “Hitch” as he was called, and I were on the opposite end of the belief spectrum, I have a great amount of respect for his intellect, sense of humor, and wit, and I especially admire his support of free speech. Deep down I believe he secretly held different beliefs than what he espoused publicly, but that he wanted to force his more faithful intellectual opponents to sharpen their arguments for belief.
Hitchens, despite all of his anti-religion rantings and writings, tellingly chose a revealing biblical passage at his own unreligious father’s funeral which relates to my litter story. Even he believed there were eternal standards worth pursuing. The passage was Philippians 4:8:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
If you’re open to it, life has a way of teaching you things and if you pay attention you start to notice the connections. A meaningful experience relates to another one. A painful mistake makes you think about what went wrong and what you should do or not do again. A book you read or a friend’s life shows you a deep truth, if you listen. These epiphanies, experiences, and intellectual realizations, call them wisdom if you like, can teach you things over time about the way things really are and can show you the way.
I’m thankful for these experiences. When we hold ourselves to a standard, not of perfection, but of pursuing things worth pursuing, then we can live and move with motivation and meaning.
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