October 18, 2006

Clean Dirt, or Dirty Dirt?

2006 1530 page31 capy husband, Larry, and I were cruising along the highway while on vacation this past summer in northern Idaho—one of my favorite states. We stopped to eat at a small family restaurant, and on the way out I picked up a free copy of a local newspaper named the Central Idaho Post. For about the next half hour I had the delightful experience of scanning articles about community concerns and events, such as a public right-of-way dispute being fought in the local court system, a full page devoted to the care of animals and lost-and-found pet notices, and the minutes of the most recent County of Idaho board meeting. Not the typical news highlights I’m used to perusing in the Washington, D.C., region where I live. But the gem of the paper was an editorial on the back page written by Lee Pitts and titled “Clean Dirt.”
Pitts, whose byline is executive editor of the Livestock Market Digest, ardently applauded the honesty, the high moral ethics, and the important contributions of those who earn their living by “the sweat of their brow”—and get dirty in the process. His comments about those who work on Wall Street, however, were not quite so laudatory.
2006 1530 page31“There are two kinds of dirt in this world: there is clean dirt and there is dirty dirt,” wrote Pitts. “This country was built by people who got dirty . . . but in a clean way. [Dirt-covered] old men with callused hands and dingy overalls and women with food stains and baby spit-up on them were responsible for this nation’s ‘Golden Age,’ not some starch-collared, manicured commodities trader who sits at a computer all day and trades beans, cattle, gold, oil, timber, and other things he’d have no idea how to produce.”
Pitts’ imagination-catching phrases and alliteration didn’t fail him as he went on to say, “The best people I’ve ever known had hands that looked like well-worn leather with cracks and crevices that crisscrossed their palms with tributaries of topsoil. They were farmers who worked all day in the fields and got so dirty [that] when they came home at night they had to undress outside because they had a quarter-acre of soil in their boots. They may be what some might call ‘dirty,’ but it’s a clean kind of dirt, acquired in honest work. I guarantee once they get hosed off they are cleaner beneath their rough veneer than the bungling bureaucrats and paper-pushers who waste away in offices all day with hardly a need to wash their hands, too good to get their hands dirty. Where’s the evidence they did anything that day worth bragging about?”
I laughed much of the way through the piece, and as a person who works all day in an office and goes home in the evening without too much dirt to wash off, I have to conclude Pitts’ caricatures, both positive and negative, were strongly stereotypical and not always accurate. But his point was clear, and I had to agree with it—it’s not what we do that’s most important, but why and how we do it that makes the difference. Pitts seems to be advocating values held by those whose goal is not only to earn a living but, somehow, to improve the lives of others, to treat people fairly, and to deal with them honestly.
Whether we are farmers or Wall Street stockbrokers, I believe most people would rank honesty near the top of the list of character traits that should be evidenced consistently by Christians. Strict honesty and keeping our word—even if it hurts us, financially or otherwise—must be a routine part of all our dealings. It’s expected of us, and not just with the “big” things in life. Returning the extra dollar the cashier accidentally gives you when making change. Explaining to your boss the real reason you need a day off and not taking the easy way out by calling in sick. Keeping a confidence and not sharing it with even one person.
And doing what’s right, even if you’re the only person who knows whether you are being honest.
It’s all about having a clear conscience—“clean dirt”—at the end of the day.
Sandra Blackmer is the news editor of Adventist Review.