Be Nice

Do you ever have that experience of doing or saying something and instantly regretting it or at least wishing you had done whatever it was differently? I certainly have, frequently. It can be in all sorts of contexts, but what is concerning me this week is in the light of the fleeting relationships we have with the people around us, with our neighbours (in the broadest sense). Recently I have found myself regretting not showing enough generosity of spirit to people around me, and seeing that kind of behaviour in others making me feel somewhat embarrassed by my own falling shorty of the standard that I would prefer to uphold.

For example, I find myself being quite a rule based person, and as well as following the rules myself, I do tend to feel everyone else should too. So when I see people littering, or blatantly ignoring signs for no cycling say, or not cleaning up after their dog, it makes me cross. Sometimes I have to say something. That is the point it all goes a bit wrong.

Now, I am not saying for one second that it is not right to point out to people that maybe something is wrong with their behaviour. Anything we do effects the other people around us and the environment to some extent or other and whether we see it or not. ‘Minding your own business’ is one of the worst concepts anyone ever came up with and eventually leads to much worse things happening than the dropping of litter. Society and each other are always ‘our business’ in my opinion.

What I sometimes get wrong is not what but how I react to this sort of thing. Too often it is some kind of low level righteous indignation that some miscreant is not following a rule and a burning need to point this out. In fact, it is a pompous, Pharisee like obsession with the rule, and not on the consequence or the person that I am attempting to reprimand. All I am doing is creating a place where embarrassment and anger can fester – on both sides – and not resolving anything.

But there is another way, albeit one that requires a bit more thought and effort. In many cases, a softer, gentler approach might be more productive. Gently pointing something out, even with a bit of forced humour is more likely to get a better reaction than a sharp reprimand. Even if it does not, it make me feel better about it because I can find it easier to let whatever it is go when it is clear that the offender is the kind of person that probably needs some kind of help. And yes, sometimes I should just let it go, because maybe I am not the right person to resolve this particular little problem (goodness knows there are plenty in the world to deal with).

I guess I am thinking here along the ‘loving your neighbour’ lines and recognising that when we have to pull each other up on something it needs to be from a place of love rather than anger or outrage. There is a time for anger, but in many of the interactions we have it is inappropriate and counterproductive. To be honest, I have a kind of fantasy of the kind of person I would like to be and am a long way from achieving it, but then there will always be some room for improvement and I would rather change things with a smile then a sharp word – if at all possible.

‘I was quick on the draw/As I tidied up the floor/ So they called me the Orinoco kid’

I miss the Wombles, and it is about time they made a comeback (again). The time is right because Bernard Cribbins is still with us to voice them for a start. However, I think that this time they need to be much more active crusaders, because I worry we are in danger of drowning in our own refuse.
For those of my friends outside the UK, the Wombles were a race of creatures of indeterminate heritage that lived under Wimbledon Common on the outskirts of London. Their main function in life was the collection (and apparent recycling) of litter. And occasionally having Mike Batt penned hit records (apparently thirteen of them, including later reissues), although this did not seem to be in the original set up. The BBC TV series (based on the late sixties books of a certain Elizabeth Beresford, trivia fans) was required watching for my childhood self and I completely bought the eco-friendly message. My ‘Keep on Wombling’ LP was a treasured possession and played almost as regularly as ‘Rupert and the Firebird’, especially the second side which comprised the dreams of Orinoco, and increasingly surreal set of episodes where our hero imagines himself collecting litter in a number of different genres, including one with a giant litter eating robot. Possible the best song on that side I recall is the Western themed ‘Orinoco Kid’ – which as well as the title above includes the immortal exchange ‘Well they sent someone to meet me/ Name of Big John Womble Wayne/ He threw his cigar on the ground/ As he stepped down from the train/ I stood up on my tiptoes and I looked him in the chin/ I said please pick that litter up and put it in the bin’. Enjoy at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vepJABO8xVo
Now, here is the problem I have this week. I’m not as bold as Orinoco. No matter how blatant an incident I have yet to find the courage to challenge littering outside the confines of my own disgust and frustration. I’ve lost count of the times I have walked or ran past people just tossing bottles, crisp packets or whatever into the bushes or just onto the floor. And I have said nothing, because I am not that old and cantankerous yet to reach that point where I stop caring what people think and just need to give them a piece of my mind. I know how I’d like to do it. Picks up rubbish, goes up to person and says politely, ‘I’m terribly sorry, you seem to have dropped this,’ is the way it goes in my head, but in the end I just keep silent and fume.
In particular I fume at the adults. The kids I can kind of cope with. When you are young I think that the concept of ‘consequences’ tends to be hazy at best and my rubbish disposal was generally known as ‘mother’. But mum would always put it in the bin or it would vanish into the cavernous space that was her handbag and, I presume, re-emerge some time later into the bin at home. This carrying your litter home is so well ingrained in my psyche that the Lovely Wife takes great amusement from passing me her rubbish knowing that I will automatically take it and dispose of it through the appropriate channels. But when I see a grown woman through her rubbish into the bushes in full sight of her tiny children – and note, not drop, throw – and then I just have to despair for the obvious begetting of future bad behaviour.
St Albans is relative clear in comparison to some places we have been to, but while people have always thrown away stuff unofficially – I suspect there is nothing an archaeologist likes more than a well or ditch, which can be guaranteed to contain all sorts of disposed of goods considered as rubbish and now historic treasures – but we have so much more to through away. We really must get on top of managing and disposing of our waste in a way that preserves our resources and respects each other’s environment. Even my littering lady would be a bit put out if I threw an empty drinks can into her garden, but in some way that is exactly what she did to me when she consigned her chocolate bar wrapper to add to the growing piles of unwanted decoration around where we live.
Unfortunately, the Wombles are fictional. So some of us will have to find some courage, rather than relying on them, I guess!