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I live on a busy street corner that I try to beautify by planting flowers and, recently, putting up a Little Free Library (it’s a global movement these days) that invites passers-by to take a book or leave a book. My neighbors often express appreciation, which pleases me; what troubles me is that there are also people out there (I never see them) who throw trash on my flowers, wrappers and empty cups right on the blooming lilies. And this week someone took all the books in the little free library instead of just one. Could you help me figure out how to think about the existence of people like this? What do you think they are thinking?
Last week, my daughter’s pre-school teacher reported that someone had stolen the wagon that the kids play with from her driveway. My reaction to this news was akin to yours. What’s going through the mind of someone who steals a little red wagon from a driveway? Or the books from a little library? Or who throws trash onto blooming lilies that have been lovingly planted to bring a bit of beauty into the world? There’s no definitive way to answer this question, short of setting up a stakeout. But I do think it’s the right question. Because it forces us to consider someone else’s perspective, to engage our moral imaginations.
The actions you describe are the result of people who, for whatever reason, have turned off their moral imaginations. They’re not thinking about beauty or the communal spirit or how their actions might affect others. They probably weren’t thinking about much beyond their own convenience or pleasure, the fleeting pleasure of the subversive. I suspect they were young.
What matters here, more than anything, is that you not lose faith in your own efforts, and the impact they have.
But I think it’s important also not to separate ourselves from “people like this.” Because we all sin, in ways small and large, acting against strangers and even more often against loved ones. I spent many years as a closet shoplifter, for example. Not just as a kid, but as an adult. Why did I steal things? For the thrill of it, sometimes. Other times because I felt deprived. Almost always because I was ashamed of myself and needed to locate that shame within a particular action.
I’m not trying to absolve the finks who took those books or that wagon. But I am trying to suggest that their actions arise from temptations that afflict all of us. It’s easy to be selfish and cynical, particularly in a culture that often appears to reward such behaviors. It’s much harder to do good in the world, because it requires us not just to overcome our own dark urges, but to withstand the reckless cruelty of the world. It took you real time and energy to plant those lilies and bring them to bloom. It took someone else less than a second to cast trash upon them.
As a matter of practical advice, I’d suggest you put up a hand-painted sign on your library, and in your garden, asking passersby not to steal or litter. It’s a small thing that might trigger a second thought.
What matters here, more than anything, is that you not lose faith in your own efforts, and the impact they have. Because that would spell the end of kindness in the world. It would be surrender to the contagion of cruelty, another step down into the pit of outright nihilism. Keep that library and that garden going, UG. Let their perseverance speak to your own.
Author's note: I love this letter from Urban Gardener, because it’s so easy to get caught up in the misdeeds of others. It’s much harder to focus on the actions we can take to make the world a more beautiful, thoughtful place. Can you sense me resisting any mention of our current political moment? I’ll leave that to you all. Send along your feedback in the comments section below. And please send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, if you haven’t. — S.A.
Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.