At the top of my favorite hiking trail, I recently found a plastic water bottle wedged between the slats of my favorite bench. Whoever put it there went to considerable trouble. They drank the bottle dry, replaced the cap, they crushed it so it was thin enough to fit between the wooden boards. Then they shoved it back and forth until it was stuck halfway down the bottle’s length, and left it.
It weighed less empty than it did when they carried it up the trail. They expended far more energy wedging it into the slats of the bench than if they had carried it back down. So I was left to wonder why a person would do such a thing.
Their motive was not ecological, as it takes a plastic bottle 450 years on average to completely degrade. If left alone, the bottle would be there far longer than the rock cedars growing around it. Clearly this was not an environmentally-friendly hiker contributing to nature.
Nor could wildlife profit from the empty bottle in any way I could see. Even if they could pull it from between the bench slats, they couldn’t eat it, use it to build a nest, or do anything else productive. If they did try to eat it, they would likely be harmed or killed. Absent any positive motive I could imagine, I was left to conclude that the bottle-leaving hiker was one of “those people.”
You know the sort. They toss cigarette butts out car windows, even though wildfires are an extreme hazard in this part of the world. They leave beer cans on the side of the road for others to pick up. They zip past lines of traffic waiting to exit the freeway, then duck in at the last minute. They talk loudly on their cellphones in elevators and restaurants. Nothing felonious, just selfish acts that demonstrate their superiority over those they annoy.
Now comes the confession: I was so engrossed in my analysis of the nefarious bottle-leaving hiker that I was halfway down the mountain before I realized I had left the bottle where I found it. I started to go back for it, then remembered that I would be returning in a few days. So I decided to leave it and see if anyone would pick it up in the meantime.
No one did.
Either I was the first hiker to return to the bench (unlikely), or others were as unconcerned about the habitat as the person who originally left the bottle. That makes them complicit in this little act of ecological criminality.
Then the thought occurred to me: onlookers who watched me stare at the bottle and leave it would think the same of me. They likely wouldn’t assume I was examining the bottle from ethical and theological perspectives. So far as they knew, I was no better than the person who left the bottle. Perhaps worse, since I had a backpack with me and could easily dislodge the bottle and take it to the trash cans at the trail head.
So I concluded that it is difficult and usually erroneous to judge the motives of others based only on my impressions of their actions. Some sins are clearly sins, but some acts I find objectionable may have motives I cannot discern. Jesus asked, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). Here’s why, at least for me: it’s easier and more gratifying to notice your sins than my failures. But condemning your faults and failures does nothing about mine.
Better for me to pick up the empty bottles I find along life’s trails without worrying too much about the reasons they were left there. I have my own sins to confess. In fact, they’re the only ones I can.