On garbage, and picking it up

Chaplain’s Cornerwhitman padre

Padre Andrew Whitman

Garbage! What thoughtless people leave garbage lying around? Going for a jog the other morning past the marina, there is garbage, piles of take-out refuse, tossed cynically out of car windows, and left for others to collect. We ought to hunt these people down (their finger prints are on the trash!), round them up into old-fashioned chain gangs and send them out to tidy the streets and roadsides. Who’s with me?

Maybe that’s a bit extreme. But my mind goes there, when I’m out for a jog, to questions like, “What motivates people? How could we change that behaviour?” To be quite honest, my first thought was “set stiff fines, and enforce them.” Have the peace force out hanging around for a few nights handing out tickets until the word gets around. But then I remembered the most effective anti-littering campaign (that I’m aware of), was in Texas, under the slogan “Don’t Mess with Texas.” And that got me thinking…

You see, the most obvious ways to motivate a group of people is either fear, or else pride. Handing out fines works through fear: it’s not worth the risk. Fear stops working though, if the risk goes away. If there is no one around, you can throw out your garbage without worrying. Or to take another example, the average person drives carefully in part because they are afraid of wrecking their car. But I’ve known some with enough spare cash that they weren’t afraid to have a bit of fun. Sure, it stings to replace a Porsche, but totally worth it!

Pride is much more effective. Texans are proud of being Texans. So, if you tell them that proud Texans don’t let people mess up their State [Republic], they respond. This is actually how we make a lot of our decisions (subconsciously): rather than asking “what do I want,” we often ask, “what does a person like me want.” I stand proud because I’m a soldier, and soldiers stand proud. I pick up my garbage because I’m a responsible citizen, and responsible citizens pick up their garbage.

Pride also fails, though. If people are not proud to be Cold Lak…ians, then it won’t work to put up signs that say “Cold Lakians Don’t Litter.” They’ll just say, “Pffft, whatever. I want out of this town.” Similarly, pride can hold aviators and soldiers and sailors to a noble ethos of discipline, integrity, and self-sacrifice … right up until they stop being proud of the uniform. That often happens because their expectations have been disappointed by reality; they have been let down by comrades or leaders; the band of brothers and sisters left them hanging. This is today called a “moral injury.”

It is often assumed that religion works on these principles of fear and pride: you follow the rules because you are either afraid God will smite you, or because you get a sense of moral superiority. But in true Christianity, the mechanism of motivation is neither fear nor pride, but gratitude. The reason a Christian doesn’t litter is because we are thankful that Jesus picked up all our garbage and dealt with it himself. There is no more fear, because “nothing can separate us from His love.” And there is no pride, because He saved us when we could not save ourselves. It’s like He did us a favour we could never repay, and He doesn’t expect us to, but we can spend the rest of our lives doing little things to show our appreciation and friendship. That is more effective motivation.

It may be that fear and pride will continue to be the easiest way to motivate the masses. But I hope that individually we will find gratitude to drive us. And the greater the gift, the greater the gratitude, so my prayer is that you receive such a great gift to keep you going your whole life long.