I have lived on a rural country road for many years.
It is unpaved and unmaintained by the county or the state, lined with trees, and more frequently crossed by deer and jack rabbits than people.
It’s a throwback to an older, simpler way of life.
It’s also a throwback to a scene I’ve always remembered from Mad Men, where Don Draper and his family finish their picnic and then nonchalantly throw all their trash into the grass below.
My experience walking and running and biking and driving on this road has been to witness the return of that attitude. People dump tires and old mattresses. They dump debris from construction sites. They dump beer bottles and candy wrappers. They dump illegal deer kills and for some inexplicable and alarming reason, a lot of dead dogs.
At first, this just pissed me off — especially because the nails kept giving me flats. It made me angry at humanity and the place that I lived. I tried calling the police and animal control and my local politicians — of course, they did nothing. I put up cameras which did nothing. I despaired about the climate and the future. I thought about moving.
But then one morning on my walk with my kids, a thought hit me that was both freeing and indicting. How many times do I have to walk past this litter, I thought, before I am complicit in its existence. Even if I moved to a place where this didn’t happen, I thought, it would still be happening here. Marcus Aurelius was right when he said that you can also commit injustice by doing nothing.
So I started cleaning it up. The tires went into the back of my truck — and I paid to have them properly recycled. I was down in the gullies by the side of the road picking up soda bottles and plastic bags. I tossed countless nails and screws into the trash. I have put on face masks and gloves and scooped up dead goats, a dead calf and dead dogs which I burned or took to the back of my ranch to decompose in a less disruptive place.
I can’t say the experience was pleasurable, but it was empowering.
The Stoics would agree that the world can be ugly and awful and disappointing. They would just remind us that what we control is what we do about this. We control what difference we…