August 6, 2009

The Fork in the Road

2009 1522 page25 capODAY I ENCOUNTERED A FORK IN THE ROAD. I THOUGHT OF ROBERT FROST and the two diverging roads, the choice of which can make all the difference. What to do? What to do?
I picked it up.
It was plastic, and I don’t know how long it had been there, but even if 100 other feet had walked right over it, that was no excuse for me to leave it there. In fact, looking back on this nonevent, I’d have to say I personally sidewalk-greeted at least five others who had walked over or on that fork without stooping to pick it up. Who knows how many dozens may have done so as well?
I find this interesting (I’m easily entertained). It’s been a while since I’ve seen a generation so outspoken about ecology, recycling, and the responsible use of resources. I hear students talking about decreasing our carbon footprint, spearheading the (re)distribution of recycling containers in campus buildings, passionately venting concerns about how the campus should be more “green,” etc.
2009 1522 page25But I’ve seldom seen a generation less likely to actually stoop to pick up so much as a plastic fork, or even to wait till they see a trash can to toss something away. For example, the residence hall is equipped with trash rooms containing a row of large bins from which trash is daily bundled and trundled out to dumpsters. Again and again I’ve seen the first two bins bountifully overflowing onto the floor while those just a few steps back remain empty.
Haven’t you seen this in public places as well? If the can is full, just dump it alongside—anything to get it out of my way, people seem to think. I’ve seen chewing gum stuck on doorframes just three doorways away from the trash room. I’ve seen people drop a bottled drink, step around the glass and ooze, and keep walking.
Interestingly, they abhor this behavior in others, but others are the issue. They feel someone should be cleaning all this up, but, surely, it should be someone other than themselves. They talk a good talk but have trouble with the walk—um, stoop. It’s like they have the value in their heads but it hasn’t yet worked its way down to their hands and backs.
Where have they learned this halfhearted, lazy, surface-thin pretense of concern for values not really practiced? Where have they learned this lip service to community without being willing to sacrifice even a few steps or one deep knee bend in its service?
Perhaps they learned it from—
those who wrote about global warming and produced movies about global warming and read books about global warming but still drive two blocks to shop.
those who are horrified when someone wears genuine fur but enjoy showing off their expensive name-brand leather shoes.
those who decry low-wage sweatshops but buy things as cheaply as they can, regardless of where it is made or by whom.
those who shed tears over foreign genocide but haven’t overcome prejudice toward the people down the street.
those who demand their attendance at church but don’t speak of spiritual things at home.
Perhaps they learned these things from us.
It’s as if we care in the abstract, without personal action.
Yet in order to serve, we must be brought low. And in the service of others, self must sacrifice. We must stop asking, “Which of you will clean up this mess?” and start being the ones who do—whether or not it is elegant or convenient or in our job description. And it’s probably time to stop blaming this generation for things we failed to consistently model for them.
It’s not too late. There are always at least two paths diverging, and the one we choose can still make all the difference. 
Valerie N. Phillips is associate director of the women’s residence hall at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where she has ministered to collegiate and graduate women for more than 25 years.