Today’s mindless moment is about trash. The kind of trash that I sometimes find irritating and sometimes infuriating. We hear every day that we’re in an environmental crisis and we need to reduce our garbage and be diligent about recycling. Lately, there’s been a rash of stories and documentaries about how much of what we recycle doesn’t actually get recycled, but that’s for another day. What’s bothering me today is junk mail, store receipts and packaging. Almost every day, my mailbox is full of advertisements and catalogues that I don’t want. My porch is littered with flyers from gardeners, real estate agents, and currently, political ads. And every day, I have to scoop everything up and walk it straight to the recycle bin, where it may or may not even get recycled. Why are we still killing millions of trees to generate junk mail that people don’t need? In my opinion, this is a completely mindless act on the part of the companies hoping that by blanketing us with thousands of pieces of paper, they might get one sale.
Then there’s the store receipts. I can purchase one item and my receipt is 9” long, with surveys and ads and other nonsense printed below my simple purchase. This again is not only an environmental ding, but really wastes my time as we try to maintain a paperless office, which means scanning all receipts. Some of the receipts don’t even fit on the scanner, so more time and energy are spent cutting the receipts down so we can digitize it. Talk about a mindless activity!
Then there’s packaging. I’ve actually reduced my visits to Costco to just two or three times a year, not because they don’t have great prices on many items I need for both personal and work use, but because of the packaging. Two memory sticks, which are perhaps 1 inch by a half inch, comes in a package that is 16 inches by 12 inches in size. It’s not only a tremendous waste of trees, but half of the package is hard plastic that is treacherous to get open. Why?
I switched to shopping mostly online, thinking that it’s better not to drive to stores in order to reduce car emissions. We purchase a lot of items for workshops on top of office supplies and I was quite proud of myself, for about a minute. Small items frequently arrive packed in huge boxes, filled with packing materials. Three orders may arrive in three separate deliveries, so now instead of my gas emissions, it’s three trucks coming to the office in a day. I switched to the option to have all of my deliveries arrive on one day a week. After three weeks of not getting the items on time, I had to switch back.
It’s all mindless and a little maddening. And there’s a deeper impact of all of this nonsense and that’s feeling helpless. I don’t want to pollute the planet, but I’m reminded every single day that it’s not very easy to be environmentally friendly. And that’s not just an environmental ding, that’s a psychological one. My irritations and frustrations can build up into an overwhelming feeling that I can’t make a difference or that I have no choice. Companies decide what’s best for them, not for me and not for the planet. So I meditate. I bring myself back to the present moment, away from my mailbox and computer and retailers. I remind myself that what I can do is keep trying. If each of the 7.7 billion people on the planet tried to reduce even a small amount of the trash we generate, it could make a difference. If we can remember that we’re all connected and collectively, we do have power, we can make a difference.
For today, I have to let my trash issue go. There are people trying to make those receipts smaller through legislation. There are people exposing the recycling dilemma. I have other contributions I can make to improve people’s lives, including my own. Acceptance is a major aspect of mindfulness and I have to accept that I am not responsible or accountable for what others do. I am only responsible and accountable for my own actions and I can do something about my own behaviors.
It can be hard to admit that we’re responsible for something, but it’s typically even harder to hold ourselves accountable for that something. Most people use the words responsible and accountable interchangeably, and while they are related, they actually have two distinct meanings. I am responsible for making purchases that contribute to the trash problem. Responsibility relates to an action, whether assigned through a role or self-assigned. I am accountable for the results of my trash-generating behavior.
As always, as I’m busy judging companies for producing so much waste, there’s plenty to assess in my own behavior. For example, I’m responsible for printing a lot of handouts, generating both paper and toxic ink cartridge waste. I’m responsible for using a lot of double and triple A batteries. By acknowledging that I do these things that pollute the environment, I am holding myself accountable. Being accountable does not mean I necessarily know how to fix the problem, but it means that I am aware of my behavior and that it has an impact on others. Despite complaints, I do not print out Powerpoint presentations, for example, in an attempt to reduce the amount of waste our workshops generate. But I haven’t found a way to eliminate all handouts, yet. The battery problem is another conundrum. Rechargeable batteries reduce the number of batteries I have to recycle, but they require electricity which generates pollution. And recycling them requires driving my car to a recycling center, which means I’m adding to the greenhouse gas problem. It’s a little crazy-making sometimes.
While responsibility is doing the act, accountability is about ownership. And it’s accountability that seems to be greatly lacking in our world today. Our representatives in Washington DC are responsible for creating and passing legislation. They are accountable for the results, but more often than not, they don’t hold themselves accountable but blame the opposite party for anything that goes wrong, or when they fail to perform their responsibilities. Corporations are responsible for creating their products or services and accountable for any harm those products or services produce. But again, most attempt to hide anything that goes awry or blame someone else for problems that arise.
Accountability is so important because it affects our behavior. If we knew we would be held accountable for every action we take, before we take it, we would give that action more serious thought before starting it. Consider how our behavior might change if the garbage pick-up only occurred once a month instead of every week. Wouldn’t we think twice before generating trash that we have to store somewhere for 30 days?
In the U.S., the average citizen produces almost 6 pounds of trash a day. About 1-1/2 pounds of that is recyclable, with the rest going to the garbage heap. Assuming we all recycle, that’s over 2,000 pounds, which is one ton, of trash per person and considering there are 329.5 million of us, that’s almost 541 million pounds of garbage per year that has to go somewhere. As individuals, we’re responsible for the ton of trash we generate each year, but do we hold ourselves accountable for it or just complain about others generating garbage?
As another example, in the workplace, we’re each responsible for the duties and tasks assigned to our roles. When we make mistakes, do we hold ourselves accountable or do we blame someone else? If a supervisor tells us to do something that we feel is inappropriate or could cause harm, do we do it anyway and then if caught, use the excuse that we were just following directions? We’ve seen this come up many times in this century in the military when something has gone wrong and the response is that someone was just following orders. And of course, it comes up frequently in the government, as in the current presidential impeachment proceedings. When someone witnesses something they believe to be wrong and no one is doing anything about it, a whistleblower is born. If everyone held themselves accountable for their actions, there would never be a need for a whistleblower, but of course, that’s not our nature.
Fear is the foundation for the lack of accountability we experience.
We fear reprimands, loss of employment or position, loss of relationships, loss of money, loss of reputation, and more. Couldn’t we enjoy all of these aspects of life more if we confronted these fears and were simply honest about our actions? Think of all of the energy and stress expended trying to cover up, hide or deny something that we’ve done. That’s an exhausting way to live. Accountability takes courage, but it results in behaviors and actions that result in outcomes that are better for all of us.
Mindfulness includes self-awareness and awareness of our surroundings, without judgment. That includes self-judgment. Being mindful encourages accountability because we can look at our own behavior and the resulting impact without self-scorn, but with an open mind that can lead to making changes or improvements. If we perform our responsibilities in a mindful way, we’re reducing the potential for needing to be accountable because we’re considering our actions and behaviors more thoughtfully, resulting in fewer mistakes or negative outcomes. None of us are perfect so mistakes will be made. But holding ourselves accountable ensures that those mistakes are mindfully considered, allowing alternative behaviors to emerge that can lead to a better life and a better world.