Life Lessons at the Recycling Center

I hate returning cans to the store. I think Michigan is the only state that makes people go through this crazy ritual. Michigan has this law that requires a ten cent deposit on all cans and bottles of carbonated beverages. This was a smart idea in 1980 when there was zero to no recycling. Now that there is recycling almost everywhere, it’s a pain in the you-know-what. I’d much rather just toss my cans and bottles in with my other recycling bin rather than having to claim the ten cents by waiting in line and relying on a machine to read the bar codes correctly.

So this particular time I had my four-year-old son with me. It was a busy Saturday and the place was packed. Of course two machines weren’t working so we were limited to three working machines and my cart was overflowing with three huge garbage bags of cans and bottles. The last time I took back recycling my son was very helpful and excited to place them in the machine. This time, he decided the best way to return the cans was to launch them into the machine at high velocity. This served to either miss the window or cause the machine to register an error. As a result I was constantly fishing empty, sticky cans out of the bowels of the machine and instructing him to “be gentle”.

While this was going on I decided that I was the “mother theresa” of the recycling center and it was my duty to inform people that the other machines were not working and steer them to the working ones. I graciously gave up one of my machines so that others could  use it. In the mean time, I was shoving the receipts the machine was spitting out at me in the outside pocket of my purse, only half paying attention. Finally all the bottles were either recorded or tossed in the garbage based on their acceptance level to the machine. I felt guilty about throwing away the bottles and cans not accepted but I couldn’t stomach lugging them through the grocery store and home again, so they were thrown away. Another reason to abolish the deposit law. I think I’ll write my congresswoman… but I digress.

We finally get into the store and as we walk through the aisle my son starts harassing me about getting a pumpkin. He is obsessed with Halloween and convinced he needs a pumpkin and wants to go the apple park (aka Cider Mill). I keep telling him no and he starts to cry. Suddenly I panic and wonder where all my receipts are from the bottle return machine. I start looking through my purse, but I can only find two of the slips. The largest one, for ten dollars, is missing. All kinds of thoughts run through my head. “Of course I would lose the ten dollar one. Here I am working hard to be kind to others and of course, no one could bother to tell me that I dropped the slip. It doesn’t pay to be nice to people.” Amidst all these thoughts my son has worked up to a full whine and cry, begging to get a pumpkin and go to the apple park. I stop the cart in the aisle. “No” I hiss. “That’s enough! I’ve said no and I don’t want to hear another word about it.” This sends him into more wails and I start pushing the cart, ignoring him while people stare, hoping that my non-reaction will cause him to quiet down.

He does calm down eventually as I distract him with a water and the unwashed grapes I let him eat thinking that a little pesticide won’t hurt him… that much… But as I walk through the store my self-righteousness grows. Here I am trying to be considerate of others and let them know about the machines, and even give up my own, and no one could be bothered to tell me I had dropped the receipt. Instead, they claimed it for themselves. I keep up this self-righteous pity all the home and vent to my husband who sympathizes and agrees that people are rotten to the core. I was feeling pretty good about myself when a thought stopped me in my tracks. No one asked me to help them or give up my machine. I wanted to do that because I wanted to be seen as “nice”. By doing that I lost track of my own stuff and I lost the slip. No one stole it from me, I lost it. Suddenly my self-righteousness was deflated like a popped balloon.

Humbled, I recognized my folly. I was supposed to keep track of my own stuff. If I wasn’t going to look after my own stuff, how could I expect anyone else to? I’m not advocating selfishness, I’m not saying I should have taken every machine and told everyone to deal with it, I’m saying I should manage my own side of the fence. If I had just paid attention to my son and returning our cans and let everyone else figure out how to return their own cans I would have been fine. So often in my life I have been worried about helping others, who were completely capable of helping themselves, that I didn’t taken care of myself, and then been mad when those same people wouldn’t help me do things I could do for myself. Should I say that again? In other words, I need to take care of my side of the fence, then help those who really need help. If I don’t love and care for myself, why should I expect others to?

It’s about recognizing that I have a place at the table the same as everyone else. My place isn’t bigger or smaller, it’s a place just like everyone else. I like what Brene Brown says, don’t puff up, don’t shrink down, just be. It was a good lesson to learn. It cost me ten dollars, but it was worth it.

 

 

 

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