Two People Hear the Same Number …

My mind has been churning churning churning ever since the discussion following my last post. In particular, I’ve been mulling over some things Rita shared, ideas as to why people may, in effect, shut down or go into denial about the ginormous problem the world faces with regards to climate change. And because I have this wonky brain that seemingly cannot hear a snatch of a phrase or the suggestion of an idea without my neurons responding instantaneously with lines from songs, stories or children’s books, I find I once again have Dr. Seuss* running through my brain:

” … And this mess is so big

And so deep and so tall,

We can not pick it up.

There is no way at all!”

Just in case you’re sighing and saying, Oh crap, here comes yet another downer of a post, I assure you, I’m not going to dwell on *actual* messes that are big and deep and tall and un-pick-up-able; this is an entirely musey-type post in which I ponder the broad question: why is it that two people can be faced with the same facts and have two completely opposite reactions?

(Public Service Announcement: those who are uninterested in overly-long, musey-type posts might want to click away now 😉 )

In my last post I mentioned one of my simmering ires: the regular use of disposable coffee cups for daily morning coffee. It’s an understatement to say I’m passionate about a number of environmental issues, but unthinking consumption and the heedless use of disposable products kindasorta tops my list of pet peeves, so disposable coffee cups are going to be the example I use in this post.

I started university in 1985, although I don’t think my coffee habit began until second year, when I met the fellow who was to become Mr. Marian. He espied me in the library, asked his friend — who had just begun dating my friend — for an introduction, and we went for coffee. My memories of 30 years ago are slightly hazy and I don’t remember the types of cups they used — whether they were paper or foam — but I do distinctly remember that shortly after I became addicted we began frequenting this coffee shop a sign appeared beside the menu board:

Did you know? X disposable cups are used in Y amount of time in Z location. If X disposable cups were stacked they would reach to the moon …

It’s entirely possible the sign said to the moon and back; equally likely is that the cups were looped around like Apollo 13. Yes, I’m slightly sketchy on the details. I also don’t have the exact number (it was nearly 30 years ago!), but really, the exact number doesn’t matter. The point is: I looked at the sign, had a moment’s pause at the ginormous number, thought of the vast distance to the moon, looked at the cup in my hand, and had RESPONSE A: “X disposable cups?! To the MOON?! That’s terrible! I don’t want to be a part of that!”, and the very next day began bringing a mug from home.

(As an aside, for those readers who are much younger, lidded and insulated cups weren’t yet commonplace 30 years ago; or, if my memory has completely failed me and they were, it either didn’t occur to me to buy one, or I couldn’t/wouldn’t spring for such a purchase. No, my solution to the disposable cup problem was to bring a ceramic mug from home; it would get filled with coffee and I’d walk very carefully — hot coffee *this close* to sloshing over the rim and all over me —- down crowded corridors, hoping no one would bump into me, and heaving a sigh of relief when I finally got to the commons).

So … did this bit of coffee shop employee activism work? Did the cold, hard, mind-boggling number, placed alongside the stacked-up-to-the-moon imagery convince everyone? Was the manager gleefully calling their disposable cup supplier the very next day in order to deliver some very bad economic news?

Nope. Because, just as Rita intimated, an equally valid response to the sign would be RESPONSE B, and would go something like this:

“X disposable cups?! To the MOON?! That’s terrible! Who’da thought? … Well, I guess my occasional one or two or ten doesn’t add up to a hill of beans in and amongst all that, so there’s nothing I can do … ” 

So, (completely and conveniently ignoring RESPONSE C, which is “Meh, who cares?”) here’s where the musing begins …

I’m wondering if the two reactions can be put down to two separate factors:

First, does a person’s response depend upon how they view the world? Would a sense of personal ownership, the feeling that the Earth belongs to each and every one of us, translate to a person reacting to the imagery of disposable cups stretching-to-the-moon-and-back with response A, as opposed to reacting with response B?

This thought brings me back to our years spent in Minnesota. Hanging on a wall in our paediatrician’s office was this picture by Cheryl Piperberg. I absolutely love this picture; it’s a bright and cheery depiction of animals and trees set on a gently curving Earth, with these colourful block-lettered words scribed along the bottom: The Earth Is a House That Belongs To Us All. 

Every time I saw this picture, I would smile a little smile and think YES! She is SO right! The Earth IS a house that belongs to us all!, but I wonder … is it presumptuous and simplistic to make the assumption that a deep-seated love of the Earth, in and of itself, is enough to propel a person past the mind-boggling numbers, past the daunting and despairing feelings that come when facing messes that are impossibly big and deep and tall and oh, so absolutely un-pick-up-able? Or is something else needed in order to push past all that?

The second factor I’m wondering about is something I’m going to term the “stuff factor”.

Now, I could try to explain this “stuff factor” in the abstract, or I could walk the walk the Canadian Mental Health Association would like us to, well, walk, and hold myself up as the example. This past weekend, the CMHA held Canada-wide Ride Don’t Hide events in order to raise awareness and to get people talking openly about mental illness. I didn’t participate in our local event, in part because (ironically) I was too busy cleaning out our garage and organizing shoes, but that doesn’t mean I can’t talk about it now. So here it is, alluded to in my crib post, and talked about in discussions on other blogs, but never before spelled out here:

Hello, my name is Marian, and I have a problem with “stuff”.

I have what I would term a heightened awareness of “stuff”. I am an enumerator of stuff, an arranger of stuff, a checker of stuff, a straightener of stuff. Too-much-stuff or messy-stuff has the potential to set my teeth on edge, to fray my nerves, to set my stomach churning and to blow my anxiety through the roof.

As well, my mind sees and projects — with utter clarity — the cradle-to-grave lifespan of “stuff”. Any object that comes into my life is held up for analysis: where did this come from; how was it made; from what was it made; how long will this object be in my life; what will happen to this object at the end of its useful existence?

This heightened awareness of stuff means I have a powerful need to keep track of things. If one of our kids, or my husband, asks me where something is, they know that I will know exactly where the object is.

Lost things? Oh. My. Gosh. They don’t just bother me; they niggle parasitically at my brain for days, weeks, years … I still think of the two LEGO chains that somehow got lost in our last house. When we had our ducts cleaned, I came *this close* to asking the man to dump out the considerable contents of his massive vacuum on the driveway, so I could sift through. I once asked my husband to unscrew the Billy bookshelf from the wall in the den because I was convinced two puzzle pieces had slipped through the gap in the backing. Two days had passed since we tried and failed to complete the puzzle and my mind would just not let go of the incessant litany of wherethehellcouldthosepuzzlepiecesbe?**

Because the fear of losing things is so strong, it can be painfully difficult to give things away. If I have a bag of clothing that is going to Goodwill, all the pockets must be checked, all the folds inspected. Not once, not twice, but several times. Even when I do manage to get the bag in the car, it takes me days — sometimes weeks — to actually get the bag to Goodwill. Sometimes the bag must come out of the trunk and must be re-inspected. You know, because despite checking a half-dozen times, there still might be something important in the bag, something I missed, something I actually need. Even at the point of hand-off, when I’m placing the bag on the cart at Goodwill, I have to fight the urge to snatch the bag away and take it home for one last check. All of this would be funny if it weren’t so damn stressful and time-consuming; I’d be laughing at the craziness of it if I didn’t have tears of frustration running down my cheeks.

If you’re thinking this is sounding somewhat OCD-ish, you’d be right. Except for the -ish part. And the somewhat part.

Hello, my name is Marian, and I have OCD.

So here’s my theory about the “stuff factor” and how it relates to taking care of the Earth:

If a person:

  • hates clutter
  • breathes more easily in minimalistic spaces
  • agrees with the statement Mess = Stress
  • finds the now-commonplace internet assertion that “stuff is just stuff” to be a woefully inadequate assessment of the *actual* power “stuff” can hold
  • has even a slight touch of OCD (of the “stuff” variety)
  • has full-blown OCD (of the “stuff” variety)

Then that person will find environmentalism to be the best thing since sliced bread. In fact, I would even go so far as to venture that environmentalism is THE gateway drug for anyone with OCD or minimalistic leanings (although I’m having a hard time deciding whether it feeds it or calms it).

Why? Because doing the right thing for the environment nearly always translates to LESS stuff: less stuff to buy, store, sort, organize, clean, purge, recycle, trash, give-away, bequeath, bury in the backyard (just kidding about this last one; I was just checking to see if you were paying attention 😉 ). And hello? LESS stuff? What an absolute and blessed relief for people like me!

(Is it okay for a non-religious person to use the term blessed relief?)

* In case any of you haven’t read The Cat In The Hat (either at all, or not for many years, or less than the approximately one billion times I have — meaning the entire story is indelibly etched on my gray matter) I’ll explain:

In Dr. Seuss’ The Cat In The Hat, two children are left alone in their house on a boring, rainy day. Unwittingly, they allow The Cat In The Hat into the house, and, together with his pals, Thing One and Thing Two, they entertain the children with a variety of games. They wreak total havoc on the house and then (seemingly) walk away. These lines come from the latter part of the story, when the children’s fish is contemplating the mess the uninvited guests have created, and bemoaning the impossibility of cleaning it up before the children’s mother arrives home. (Spoiler alert: The Cat In The Hat returns and cleans up the mess, just in the nick of time. Maybe we can hope for a happy ending for the world as well … )

** In case you’re wondering, the puzzle pieces HAD slipped behind the bookcase! And yes, vindication is very sweet!

11 thoughts on “Two People Hear the Same Number …

  1. Perhaps it will be heartening if I point out that another route by which people can come to environmentalism is the love of stuff, the desire to have plenty of stuff and enjoy every possible molecule to the fullest. Everyone in my family is like this.

    The research study where I work is winding down and therefore reducing the number of rooms we occupy in the office building. Having worked here 17 years, I’ve been put in charge of sorting a bunch of stuff, because I’m most likely able to distinguish what we still need from what we don’t need. Now, on one hand, I’m appalled by the discovery that many of the file cabinets that have been occupying climate-controlled space since we moved to this building 9 years ago contain binders full of papers that I thought had been recycled when we moved to the previous building 13 years ago!!! (Example: A 4″ thick binder containing frequency output for every variable used in the analysis for a paper published in 1989–printed on dot-matrix paper and hole-punched without tearing the sheets apart; based on the impossibility of looking at these pages while they’re in the binder, I’d guess nobody ever looked at them again–plus the complete double-spaced single-sided draft of the paper as sent to the journal, plus the published article torn out of the journal, plus a photocopy thereof.) It is a relief to me to get rid of this stuff. BUT I am compelled by my own ethics (not by my supervisor) to make as much use of any of this stuff as I possibly can. On the edge of my desk are 5 stacks of Post-It flags in different sizes that I’ve removed from pages, either unrecyclable plastic or totally blank paper. Next to that is a heap of approximately 2 cups of paperclips that can be reused. On the floor is a 10″ high stack of blank sheets of colored paper that were used to separate sections in binders; they’ll make great paper chains. Lined up in the corner are about 30 empty binders, complete with divider tabs, in good enough condition to be reused; I’ve already given away 20, and there will be 50-100 more; I’m asking around and giving away what I can, and I’ve found a thrift shop that will accept the remainder. My 10-year-old is thrilled to have a few dozen diskettes (which he rendered unreadable, to prevent confidentiality violation, by sliding the metal thing open and cutting the disk with scissors) for playing Spies with his friends; apparently spies still store their data on diskettes. I love finding uses for all this stuff!! Sorting it feels like gathering food in the woods, or mining, or something.

    Do you truly have diagnosed OCD? As a psychologist, I hate to see people throw around the term casually. But based upon your description, it sounds as though you might.


    1. We’re actually not all that different, ‘Becca; if I had your job, I would be doing the EXACT things that you’re doing! I would be pulling paper clips, saving sticky notes, separating good paper from the stuff that needs to be recycled, getting binders to people who would be able to make use of them. And, it’s important to note, I wouldn’t hate this job; on the contrary, I’d look at it as a challenge, and would feel great when it was done. On a much (!) smaller scale, this is pretty much what happens with all the end-of-the-year stuff that the kids bring home from school. Because I’m the bundler (of recycling), and because they just dump all the stuff in the recycling basket, it falls to me to take care of the job of removing paper clips, sorting, etc. This is something I’m compelled to do, to sort and organize and to NOT simply dump it all in the garbage, and I’m glad when it’s done, but it’s not something I particularly enjoy. Perhaps the difference in attitude – between me resenting the time it takes to sort the minutiae of this stuff (when I could be doing any one of a dozen better things), and the fact that I’m claiming I’d enjoy your job – lies in the simple fact that yours is a paying job…? When I worked as a pharmacist, I LOVED the organizational work and took great pride in it; at home, I feel the organizational stuff takes away from the life I’d like to be leading.

      I don’t like to see terms thrown about casually either. Have I been formally diagnosed with OCD? No. This is partly because I was raised in a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of household where mental illness was something shameful and not to be talked about; partly because I actually have an abhorrence of labels; partly because I fear a formal diagnosis would mean drug or other therapy and I stubbornly stick to the notion that I can control this myself, thankyouverymuch (and except for the bags going to Goodwill, and the multitude of times I have to check the stove before leaving the house for vacation, I pretty much CAN manage). Is it possible I have mis-diagnosed myself? I suppose it’s possible, but having spent 8 years in university, in science and health related faculties, I think it’s unlikely.


  2. I think it might be much simpler: Some people are just selfish a$$hats. (Yes, I’m judging.) Temps are going to be around or slightly over 100 for at least the next 10 days here in western Oregon. In JUNE.

    Setting aside that this is not, in itself, evidence for climate change (But: really? REALLY?), it does mean that there are going to be a crap ton more resources used in the next few weeks than would normally be used to deal with heat that is hard for humans to tolerate. When I pointed this out to someone I know, the response was: Who cares?!? I love the heat! Bring it on!

    I just gave up. Because it made me so angry, and it was so obviously obvious that further discussion was futile. This person indicated in no uncertain terms that there was nothing I was going to say that would change her perspective on this, which was: Because she can’t change the weather, she might as well enjoy it. Of course, she has AC in her home. Can’t help thinking about all those who don’t, all those who won’t in the coming years.

    And we had just come from California, where those who live there had shared what water shortages are meaning for them.



    1. I agree completely, some people are just selfish asshats (for example, the people who respond with RESPONSE C (“meh, who cares?), or those who refuse to acknowledge the problem at all). As to the people who are made aware of a problem, fully recognize that it is indeed a problem, and yet make a conscious decision NOT to help solve the problem because they think their little bit doesn’t matter … ? I do think the whole thing IS a whole lot easier for those of us who see the devil in the details, for those of us who naturally do “sweat the small stuff”, BUT I do also believe in the truth of the saying, “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” I think people need to rise to the occasion, and to stop making excuses, and I think that refusing to do your part does ultimately reflect a selfish or arrogant attitude.

      I too, think a lot about the people who are already suffering with all this: the heat waves in parts of the world where there is no AC; the countries that are low-lying and are going to be the first affected by rising seas; the drought in California. I can’t even begin to understand how arrogant a person would have to be to say who cares to all this 😦


      1. Thank you for your kind response. I was feeling particularly churlish when I commented. I really appreciate Sarah’s perspective below: That we respond by trying to understand what’s behind the response that we find so frustrating. When I’m not struggling with heat, it’s easier for me to get to that place. It’s a much more useful place than one of judgement, I know.


      2. No thanks necessary, Rita – I completely understand feeling churlish, especially when struggling with heat! Our first summer here – scorching heat plus humidity – I was an absolute bear …


  3. For me, I tend to be an ostrich. I know this isn’t the HEALTHIEST of behaviors but I’m prone to anxiety and it’s very easy for my head to get swirling and my breathing to get speedy and my heart to get racy and then I’m snappy and yell-y and oh-my-word-can-I-just-lie-down-and-pull-the-covers-over-my-head.

    I know these things are going on and I aim for continual improvement over time but if I spend too much time thinking of all the things we should be doing to be better stewards, I get panicky and don’t want to do anything.

    I think that’s part of the problem. When people start talking it’s so dire and it’s so scary that it IS easier to turn away. But when you can take it in little bites (compost instead of throwing your green matter) or use reusable grocery bags and save a few trees – it’s not enough but it’s doable.


    1. Your first paragraph is me, exactly (with the propensity for anxiety, I mean) … so I know just how you feel 😦

      I completely agree with the idea of taking things in little bites; this is how I manage to keep myself from flying off the handle, by just thinking of the little bits I’m doing at the time (and usually without adding all the little bits up, because then it can get overwhelming). All the little bits ARE completely doable – maybe we simply need to encourage more people to do the small-scale things; maybe focussing on that would prevent people from shutting down completely …


  4. I was going to say something along the same lines as Kate, that some people might choose inaction not out of indifference but out of anxiety. That “the problem is so big, my actions don’t matter” attitude might not be a who-cares shrug but rather a sorrowful fatalism, and I think it’s worth having a bit of compassion for that.

    Good for you for “walking the talk” and being open about how your environmentalism relates to your mental health issues. I can appreciate that your OCD causes you some distress in this realm, but I also wonder if you might be able to turn it to your advantage — or more precisely, to our collective advantage. When I read your previous post, I wondered what might happen if your question “Why do people keep using disposable coffee cups?” came not with a tone of annoyance or disappointment (as it seemed to do), but from a place of genuine curiosity. That is, instead of being irritated with people for doing something that is so clearly unsustainable, what if you tried to figure out the barriers to them acting sustainably? In this new post you’re talking a lot about psychological or attitudinal barriers, and I do think those are important. But I also think there are practical barriers, and if you are a person who is deeply immersed in thinking about how people use, store, and interact with STUFF, I would think you would be uniquely well placed to figure out how to overcome some of those practical barriers. You see what I’m getting at? I hear such frustration in your posts, such a desire to make a positive difference, and I really think it would be worth trying to harness that double-edged sword of STUFF obsession to try to make that difference. Whew! That was a metaphor cocktail, sorry!


    1. Your comments are always so insightful, Sarah, as well as diplomatic! You’re absolutely right, of course … I AM often disappointed with people who, for whatever reason, are not “stepping up to the plate” sufficiently (ahem, in other words, according to my rigorous OCDish standards!). What’s become really clear to me with this last post (and this discussion) is that while my brain is perfectly wired to “see” each and every disposable cup and plastic water bottle, this is NOT how most people’s brains work! And because of that, it’s really rather unfair of me to have such high expectations. It’s kind of like a body builder showing disdain when my non-muscular frame can’t manage to bench press the same weight he/she can! (AND…worse yet…it also kind of means I’m really NOT succeeding very well in my goal to NOT become my father! Dammit! 😉 )

      I love the idea of “harness[ing] that double-edged sword of STUFF obsession” in order to figure out practical barriers, and I will try to make this a focus of future posts 🙂 . (Although I think I’m going to go onto some lighter stuff for the next while. We’ve been dealing with an extremely stressful university housing situation with our daughter for the past several weeks, and posts like these, in which I mull and stew, really aren’t helping my general well-being … )


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