Other People's Junk
And what to do about it (spoiler: nothing)
When I was a kid we visited my grandparents’ farm in rural Tennessee every year. It was a pretty awesome place from a kid’s perspective, with a lake down the road, a gully behind their house to explore, lots of random farm dogs to befriend, and piles of old Reader’s Digests in the loft of the garage to read in the sun. One of my most vivid memories of the rural South though, wasn’t related to innocent kids activities. It was all the junk in people’s yards.
Northeastern middle class suburbanites don’t do garbage in our yards. So it was always a bit of a culture shock to see the old fridges, rusted out farm equipment, old buses (so many buses…why the buses?), and of course old cars, just sitting around in people’s front and side yards.
As a kid with minimal responsibilities whose parents were pretty neat people, it was easy for me to judge. These people, I thought, do not know how to clean up after themselves! If I had had a religious turn of mind at the time, the vice I would have assigned to these strangers would have been sloth.
Justifying Our Own Junk
Fast forward thirty odd years and my husband and I live in a house with a large yard that needs a lot of work. We have dogs, three small children, jobs, and a lot to do. In the eight years we’ve lived here, we’ve moved the kitchen, busted out walls, put in windows and doors, taken out other windows and doors, built a pond where the old above ground pool sat, built a wraparound porch, and erected an entirely new two story garage while tearing down the old decrepit one. Needless to say, we’ve been busy.
One day not long ago while scooping dog poop in the backyard I took note of the old pool equipment under the cherry tree, the rusting industrial generator in the back driveway, the pile of old Trex from a porch renovation nestled by the fence, and the old lawn mower rusting by the back gate. My eyes scanned over the collection of sand toys strewn across the yard, the pool noodle flailing helplessly from a clump of ornamental grass, and the garden tools left out by the pond, some already rusting. I laughed ruefully at the judgement of my 10 year old self, because far from sloth, the junk in our yard was the result of a (probably) ill-judged frenzy of activity.
Fortunately for us, our neighbors are tolerant people and they can’t see most of the junk in our yard anyway, so no one has bothered us (though the giant snow groomer came up at a zoning board meeting about one of our projects…). The junk does bother *us*, actually, but despite it bothering us, we always have more junk in our yard than we’d like. And this is where the moderate radical starts thinking…
Reasons for Junk
The truth is, most people have junk in their yards for a combination of three or four primary reasons, with an additional reason bringing up the rear. For most people, junk in our yards is a combination of a lack of time, money, energy or knowledge to do anything about it. Sometimes, people have preferences for junk because they hope to sell it or use it for spare parts or think they might need it later.
I know in our case, we had junk in our yard because we couldn’t afford to throw away building materials we might use later but didn’t have anywhere to store. Other times we were waiting until we could justify a dumpster with enough junk and time slipped away. Sometimes, we literally didn’t know what to do with the junk, like the giant snow groomer that sat in our back driveway for four years because the county government switched hands and an agreement to store it for the local ski club fell through. We didn’t know what to do with this thing and didn’t have the time to spend hours figuring it out, so there it sat. Should we have tried harder to get rid of the junk in our yard? Maybe. But maybe not. It wasn’t hurting anyone. Sometimes it *did* come in handy later. And whatever the case, we had other priorities like keeping dogs and children alive, doing our real jobs, and finishing house projects. Those activities mattered more than managing the junk in our yard, so that’s what we did.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we manage pluralism in our complex 4D landscape and the example of junk in people’s yards provides one way to think about it.
The first step to managing pluralism is understanding where pluralism comes from. At a basic level, people usually have reasons for having junk in their yards. We don’t have to think they’re good reasons, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have them. Whether these reasons involve time, energy, money, knowledge or preferences, people have reasons and those reasons demand, at the very least, that we recognize them even when we don’t agree with them. Realizing that people have reasons for their junk, even if we don’t think they’re very good reasons, can help us with step #2, which is the harder one.
The second step is the very difficult one of recognizing that we don’t have (and shouldn’t have) a lot of control over the junk in other people’s yards. We can and must realize that hard limit if we want to live peacefully with other people. This is perhaps the hardest step because it seems to be an innate tendency of humans, or at least specifics kinds of humans, to think that we should indeed be able to control the junk in other people’s yards. Those of us without junk (or who think we don’t have junk but in fact do) feel strongly that other people shouldn’t have junk and that it’s our job or *someone’s* job to get rid of it. These are sometimes the people dubbed “Karens” on the internet, who call the police on people who don’t look like them for extremely minor reasons. But the tendency to Karen isn’t restricted to a particular race or gender (and the term Karen has some ugly misogynistic overtones too).
The third step is perhaps the hardest step, which involves understanding when to engage people about their junk and when to leave it alone. As a general rule, if you don’t know someone, you don’t need to worry about their junk and shouldn’t try to engage with them about it. If you do know the person well, you can gently bring up the subject and see if they like their junk or if they might appreciate a bit of help with their junk. If they express interest in engaging on the topic of yards in general, you have an in. If they don’t, you can just move on to something else.
What you cannot do and should not do and so many people try to do is to force other people - including people you don’t know - to have the same opinion about their junk as you do. Some people call the police about other people’s junk. Other people try to shame these people. Others just expend unnecessary energy thinking about and resenting other people’s junk. None of this is a good use of time because, in the end, none of it will address the underlying reasons that people have junk in their yards in the first place.
Now, I know. It’s hard to look at junk in people’s yards. It ruins the view and it might even lower your property values. Sometimes junk is dangerous, attracting vermin or creating traps for the unwary. Truly dangerous junk probably does merit intervention. But if you just don’t like other people’s junk and don’t want to see other people’s junk, the best thing to do is to move to a place with zoning laws or a nice solid HOA and leave the people with junk in their yards alone.
Junk Ideas, Tolerance, and Civil Discourse
As is probably obvious by this point, the junk in this context can be a metaphor for a lot of other things. We may think people we disagree with have junk ideas, but those so-called junk ideas may be serving some important purposes in their lives. They may have good reasons for that particular collection of ideas. Or they may just be side-effects of how they were raised or ideas that showed up along the way that stuck, like our dumb snow groomer or the industrial generator. The people we disagree with may not have the time, energy, money, or knowledge to get better ideas. It’s also entirely possible (actually, probable) that *we’re* the ones with junk ideas and don’t even know it.
The worst way, as I hinted above, to handle junk in people’s yards - mental or physical - is to force people to remove it. Coercion rarely changes minds and often just results in people doubling down on the behavior we don’t like. But even more concerning, it can also prevent really cool things from happening, like the woman in a gardening group I’m part of who had a medicinal garden in her front yard that kept getting reported to the town as “weeds.” After a few $175 tickets she gave up on her medicinal garden, which is a net loss of cool stuff in the world. Clearly none of her neighbors stopped to consider that her plant “junk” was in fact useful stuff that other people (or she!) might need or want. And that’s part of the problem with forcing people to take our view of their junk: we almost never know enough about other people to have an educated opinion on the matter. Without an educated opinion we certainly shouldn’t be forcing people to do what we want them to.
Ideas Matter, but Sometimes Other Things Matter More
Finally, there’s an important but hard lesson that people who care about politics and political ideas should remember. While the junk in someone’s yard might seem to matter a lot to you and maybe a lot in some big transcendent way because it means something about Virtue and Vice and Pride In One’s Home or whatever other reasons you specifically have for not having junk in your yard, for other people it’s not that deep. Some people have crappy or ill-informed political and social opinions because political and social opinions just aren’t worth the effort given everything else they’re juggling.
I met a guy when I was waitressing in grad school whose job in rural Illinois was scraping dead animals and animal waste out of grain siloes. Eight hours a day. I can easily see how that guy - or a single mom working two jobs to put food on the table or someone battling chronic illness - isn’t really focused on his literal or metaphorical junk. Nor should he be. Just like my husband and I had more important things to be doing when our junk was getting a bit out of control, other people have a lot of reasons for not focusing on abstract questions of social/moral/political life. Their 4D moral and social landscape is complex enough already.
One of the biggest mistakes we make - and one that is exacerbated by our polarized present - is giving political and social questions more weight than they actually deserve. And this comes back to our theme from last week: remembering that humans matter. If your attitude toward someone else’s junk is causing you to be cruel or judgmental or leading you to use coercion to get them to get rid of their junk, take a step back and think about all the reasons they might have for the junk. If the junk is dangerous, be a good neighbor and offer to help them get rid of it. If it’s not, you can offer to help, but don’t be surprised if they refuse and be prepared to accept it if they do.
Tackle Your Own Junk First
Finally (really) (and this should be obvious but often is not) if you’re going to intervene in someone else’s junk - whether on an internet comment board or with Uncle Jack at Christmas or with your neighbor on their construction debris - make sure your own junk is in order. Most of us have junk ideas about at least a few things. Our mental and physical yards are not in perfect order. As the Bible helpfully reminds us, “First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend's eye” (Matthew 7:5). Until we have our own junk in order - until we’ve catalogued our own false or insufficiently grounded beliefs, until we’ve really grappled with the complexity of the 4D moral, social, and political world in which we live and are approaching other people with both humility and compassion - we probably shouldn’t be worrying about other people’s junk at all.
What do you think? Do you have literal or metaphorical junk in your yard? As always, leave a comment, subscribe, and share!