I live in an apartment complex in a town of about 75,000 people, right across the street from San Francisco Bay. It’s a nice place to live, and the scenery is astonishingly beautiful.
We have two shared laundry units in the complex, and this morning, when I went down to move some laundry from the washers to the dryers, I saw that somebody had left a mess of powdered laundry detergent all over the floor.
My initial reaction was to get upset with whoever had been so irresponsible as to leave such a mess for someone else to clean up. Aren’t we all taught, at some point in our lives, that if you make a mess, you should clean it up yourself?
Then I turned my thoughts to more practical considerations. It was only 9:30, and the complex office doesn’t open until 11, so it wasn’t going to get cleaned up anytime soon. And sometimes, when I am moving the laundry from the washers to the dryers, I inadvertently drop an occasional item on the floor. I realized that the only way this situation was going to get any better, for me or for anyone using the laundry room for the next couple hours, was if I went back to my apartment, grabbed a broom and dustpan, and cleaned the mess up myself.
Was it fair, or right, that I had to clean up somebody else’s mess so that I wouldn’t have to deal with it? No. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t right. But I realized I could either complain about somebody else shirking his or her responsibility, and still have the powder all over the floor, or I could clean it up myself. Those were the only options.
And then I thought about this situation as a metaphor for community and country, and I thought about all the homeless people I see on the streets of San Francisco five days a week when I commute to and from the city. No doubt many of these people are just unlucky, and no doubt many of them have issues they can’t cope with. And certainly, there must be some among them who are just too lazy to take care of themselves. No doubt, there are those among them who were shipped here from Nevada, where state budget decisions have led to a phenomenon called “Greyhound Therapy.” No, this doesn’t mean giving the mentally ill kindly service animals for their benefit. It refers to putting mental patients on a bus and shipping them off to San Francisco, where some might find help, but others inevitably end up on the streets. In the latter two cases, we have examples of people refusing to clean up their own messes.
And many of us see these people and see “lazy, irresponsible drunks/drug addicts,” and gripe about how they need to take responsibility for themselves. Maybe there are some who could or should. But in the meantime, while we complain, they continue to be in the streets, and this is bad for everybody—both for them and for the rest of us. While we bitch and moan about the “takers,” we also abdicate responsibility for our communities.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We can make a better society, if we are willing to get past what’s “fair” or “right” and just see a problem and take steps to solve it.
And it doesn’t have to be partisan either. The state of Utah, dominated by the Republican Party for generations, has all but ended chronic homelessness by essentially giving housing to the chronically homeless, no questions asked. By so doing, the state has saved itself many of the myriad costs associated with homelessness.
Sometimes, the only way to improve your own life, your relationships, your community, your society, your country, is to recognize that being part of a community—part of being alive and connected to other human beings—means that sometimes you’re going to have to clean up other people’s messes. To do otherwise is to cut off your nose to spite your face.
So let’s all pick up that broom and get to work.