After I finished high school here in Australia, I went to Germany as an exchange student for twelve months. I stayed with three host families, and was with the middle family over the summer break. This was particularly fortunate for two reasons: first, they were such a warm and welcoming family that I felt completely at home, and second, they owned a house in northern Sweden, where they were planning to spend two weeks summer holidays. And they wanted me to join them.
Sweden was gorgeous. It’s almost twenty years since I was there, but I still remember just how beautiful it was, especially in the area where we stayed. The summer was also unusually warm, which suited my West-Australian constitution right down to the ground, especially since there were several lakes in which to go swimming. We hiked through the forest, where I saw blueberries in the wild for the first time, and delighted in the lush green which was so different to the woodlands of my homeland. Occasionally we saw other hikers, since it was a popular area, and shortly after we’d greeted a couple on the path, we came to a clearing, and I saw a small hut.
‘It’s for hikers and campers,’ my host father told me when I asked him about it. ‘For sheltering in, or sleeping overnight.’
‘What a cool idea!’ I said, with the naivete of a rather indoorsy young person who avoided camping whenever she could.
‘So you use it for as long as you need,’ said my host father, ‘and then you leave it…’
‘In the same condition you found it,’ I finished.
‘No, no,’ he smiled. ‘You leave it how you would wish to find it.’
This is such a wonderful sentiment, isn’t it? If everyone does this, then the place stays habitable, and the work for each person is less. Occasionally, there will be someone who comes by and leaves a mess, which the next person has to tidy up. Annoying for that person, sure, but that’s where the secret lies. You do the work at that point: so that you can enjoy the cabin while you’re there, and so that those who come after you won’t have to do it. And if you don’t do it, who will?
To my 18-year-old self, this was a bit of an epiphany, which, as with most epiphanies, made enough of an impact to stay with me for the next two decades. Granted, it could be argued that it means that some people will never clean up after themselves, but you know, that’s kind of how the world is. You could go hungry, waiting for that to change. Instead, you’re best off making yourself some lunch, and just getting on with the clean-up.
Lately, as I’ve been cleaning up the mess other people leave, I’ve been thinking about how this kind of philosophy can be applied to so many other facets of life. How, if we just stopped all the finger-pointing, and got on with the clean-up, there might be less mess. If we stopped lamenting how people are just not as friendly as they were, and instead started going out of our way to show a little more kindness, we might surprise ourselves with the results. If we composted and recycled more, and drove our cars less, the world would be just a little less polluted.
There is always a place to encourage individuals to take personal responsibility; there’s even a place for laws to attempt to limit some behaviours and promote others. But surely, the best way to start the ball rolling is to walk up and give it shove. Because by doing so, you can guarantee that it will get done. And it also means that when you leave this world, you can be content with the fact that at least, you’ve done your best to leave it how you would wish to find it.