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The Alibi of Ignorance, A Small Planet and The Strength of Love
January 14, 2008 Published in The Beacon

In the 80s, I was getting ready to take a family of Cambodian refugees to the zoo. They were gathered in our driveway, wearing their finest new thrift store clothes, waiting for me. When I came out the front door, I saw what they had done.

Step one: Being very clean people, they had gathered all the trash from the floor of my car. How kind and conscientious!

Step two: Then they threw all the trash on the ground!

Step three: They stood there smiling at me, in a pile of trash, ready to pile into the now-clear car. There was nothing left to do but laugh, get in the car, drive over the junk mail and school papers, and go to the zoo.

No doubt, they thought they were being helpful. They were always helpful! Only one person spoke English, so we didn't have real conversations. But they spoke clearly with their actions.
A lightning storm knocked down a huge mulberry tree in our backyard. Without being asked, they came over in their native wraps (which always looked like they were going to fall off) and spent hours cutting up branches until the work was done.

I was caring for my paralyzed mother during those years, and hired a couple of the women a few hours a week to help with her care. But after the work hours were over, the women wouldn’t go home. “I help. No money.”|

The point is, the same group of individuals who threw a pile of trash on my driveway were generous, kind, eager to help. But they were totally unconscious of the concept of litter. They had spent years in a war-torn country, and then a refugee camp. What had been beyond their area of influence was also beyond their area of awareness. Trash abounded and they were used to it.

But if we look at the zoo story from their perspective, they didn’t want to get into my messy car in their good clothes! The finger of unconsciousness points back into my arena.

Being unconscious, or even causing harm, is more excusable when we can say, “we didn’t know.” But the alibi of ignorance only works for a short time - because we are intelligent creatures, and quite capable of learning.

Now, we are being called to look at our lifestyle choices, habits and actions very carefully. Before we didn’t know what a small planet we lived on; now we do. This Planet Earth is a very small vehicle of souls, and we’re literally piled into the back seat, sitting on each other’s laps, like the Cambodian refugees on the way to the zoo. Actions that didn’t matter in the past are now a matter of life and death.

Becoming conscious requires curiosity, observation, and a willingness to learn from each other; questioning deeply engrained habits; and forgiving ourselves and each other for the mistakes we made when “we didn’t know.”

These beloved “litterers” taught me a most important lesson. They were among the Cambodians who survived, after a third of their population of 7 million had been slain during the rule of Khmer Rouge. Seng, the only person who spoke English, had lost every member of his family in the Killing Fields! Of course, there were scars. And yet their hearts were still open. They did not surrender to despair and bitterness.

I know they learned not to throw trash in the driveway. They had their antenna sharply tuned by the humility of being grateful newcomers in a foreign land. They wanted to “make it, and I’m sure they did. We want to “make it” too. Now it’s our turn to learn from them. Adopting their curious, generous, eager humility will go a long ways. Remembering the strength of love will go even farther.