Last week, I was out mowing the lawn on the side of my house. Well, I say I was mowing the lawn; what is growing there could hardly be described as a lawn. There is grass there, but it has been all but taken over by an unidentified variety of weeds, stray bedding plants from the neighbor’s yard, volunteer canna and crepe myrtle offspring, ferns that have crept under the fence from my own back yard, and whatever that vine is which likes to attach itself to the brick on the side of the house. Although I yank it off the wall whenever I see it, that vine has an unsettling ability to grow high enough to reach my attic within a few days. Between the vine creeping up the wall, the towering cannas, the remains of a long-since-rotted split rail fence, and the mess of overgrown weeds, my side yard ceases to look like a convenient passageway to the only gate in the back fence. Instead, it is reminiscent of some horrible scene in which creatures supposedly extinct since the comet hit may lumber out, teeth bared, at any moment. And it is only about 8 feet wide.
To mitigate against dinosaur attacks, I mow the side yard regularly, and last week, it was time. As I was mowing, a panel truck drove up the street and parked in front of my neighbor’s house. It was proudly painted on the side, “TruGreen Lawn Care.” I had seen these trucks before. The uniformed driver hopped out, opened one of the side panels on the truck, pulled out a long, red, industrial-strength rubber hose, turned on some loud equipment embedded in the truck, and began walking back and forth on my neighbor’s lawn. He pointed the hose at the ground, and out of the nozzle came some kind of crystallized pellets of unknown chemicals. I am guessing those chemicals are designed to make sure that nothing but Bermuda grass grows wherever it is applied.
I felt anger arise inside me as I saw that truck pull up and the chemicals applied to my neighbor’s yard. As I pushed my mower up and back along the side of my house, I began to fantasize about my encounter with the driver of the chemical truck. He would approach me with a big, friendly smile, extending his hand. In his hand would be a glossy, four-colored brochure with a cover photo of an unnaturally smiling family in front of an unnaturally large home with an unnaturally green lawn around it. He would say to me, “your neighbor uses our services to control the weeds in her lawn; would you be interested in knowing how we can help you?” In my mind, I worked and worked on what I would say next, and I settled on this, spoken quietly, calmly, but firmly: “If it was up to me, chemicals like the ones you are spreading would be banned from the face of the earth. But since it is not up to me, just suffice it to say that it would be over my rotting corpse that you will ever be allowed to spray that crap on my lawn.” It would be powerful, it would be articulate, and it would make the statement that needed to be made.
In the interest of civility, there was a piece of me that was glad when the driver never approached me. He simply finished spreading his poison, reeled in his hose, plucked one of those little caution signs in my neighbor’s front yard, got in his panel truck, and began to drive up the street. Then, he stopped again, directly in front of the house on the other side of mine, and began his toxic routine of spreading chemicals all over their yard, too.
I was surprised, though, at the level of the righteous anger that welled up inside of me. It is a kind of righteous anger that I see a lot of these days, both in myself and in other people, particularly in a year when we are electing a president. I think it is similar to the righteous anger that drives many people to post things on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other social media that take the tone like I was prepared to take with that truck driver if my fantasy had worked itself out in reality.
I was convinced that my approach is the right approach, and I could not see how anyone could disagree. How could the friendly people who live on both sides of me buy into the mythology that I long ago dismissed: that the only acceptable lawns are free of weeds, and that the only way to make them free of weeds is to spray mysterious chemicals on them? How could they not understand, like I do, that we live only about two blocks from a marsh and river? That marsh and river is filled with a delicately and complexly balanced set of insects, fish, water fowl, reptiles, and countless other species, all protected and fed by grasses which would either be prematurely killed or unnaturally accelerated by the very chemicals which would seep into the ground from their lawns! How could the man driving the truck get out of bed in the morning and go to work knowing what he does to the ecosystem we live in every day? Sure, it’s a job, and I am sure he is glad to have it, but couldn’t he use his training to do something more healthy and helpful than making suburban lawns greener than they really should be?
A textbook I read in college on conflict management said that anger is not a primary emotion. Anger is a secondary emotion, and it is usually associated with a primary reaction of fear or frustration. I recognized my frustration. As I said to the truck driver in my fantasy, it is not up to me to decide what chemicals can and cannot be spread on my neighbors’ lawns. That lack of power is frustrating. And that lack of power leaves me to stew in my fears for the ground water, the flora and fauna which make their home in the marsh and river up the street, and the whole ecosystem which sustains our lives.
The problem with that frustration and fear is that I am a person of faith. Fundamental to my faith is the conviction that, although I am not in charge of the world, what is in charge of the world is good. In fact, some in the Christian tradition would say that what is in charge of the world is goodness itself. Therefore, if I take my faith seriously, I do not have to be afraid. I can trust that, at the end of it all, the chemicals my neighbors pay the company this man works for to spread on their lawns will not ruin the whole of creation. Don’t get me wrong; I am not called by my faith to be passive. My tradition also reminds me to take personal and collective sin seriously, to understand the interconnectedness of all people, and to work as hard as I can to steward the natural world as well as human relationships well. Frustration, fear, and the anger which results are gifts which call me to act. But the reality is that I could not stop the man from spreading the chemicals the other morning, and my faith tells me that my anger does not have to make me bitter or uncivil, because, although I am not in charge, God is, and at the end of it all, everything will be good, just like it was in the beginning.
And I realize that perhaps that faith is what I need to approach the other forms of righteous anger which will arise in me between now and the first Tuesday in November and beyond. Although I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would support the other candidate, the fact is that my candidate may not win the election. Although I cannot for the life of me understand how anyone could believe the vitriol which is posted on social media by people all along the red-blue spectrum, there may be some truth in most of it. Although I cannot for the life of me understand why people will act with such little consideration for civility in political debates, the convictions those people hold are as passionately felt as my own convictions. And at the end of it all, my faith tells me to calm down, and while I do my part as a citizen and a child of God, to trust the God who is in charge, and to cling to the hope that, at the end of it all, everything will be good, just like it was in the beginning.
I finished mowing the small patch of weeds in my side yard, wondering how many of those weeds would be destroyed by the chemicals which were spread only a few feet away. And moved on to the larger complex of grass and weeds which constitute the lawn in my back yard. Back there, I was able to admire the beauty of the flowers, herbs, vegetables, bushes, and trees surrounding my lawn, knowing that those beautiful things can only grow where they are because I choose not to spread similar chemicals on the ground in which they grow.