This Is Why We Should ‘Leave It Better Than We Found It’

a woman in the foreground of this seaside image, wears gloves as she picks up debris and puts it in a trash bag. A man in the distance is walking with a trash bag, looking down at the beach sand for trash.

It’s time to pick up their trash, my friends

It was my last day walking on the beach. I would be sad to leave, not just because it meant packing, loading, driving, and unpacking. But because these predawn walks made me feel alive with God.

In the privacy offered by the darkness and solitary shoreline, I could pray aloud, even sing and shout with joy to the Creator. I could dance or skip. Whatever! I found that the unique beauty of each day required spontaneous praise as special as the scenery.

This morning was perfect. The colors low on the horizon beginning to lighten the sky, the scattered clouds providing lavish detail, the ocean encroaching and withdrawing, the air cool and breezy. Just as God designed it.

Except for the trash. The broken handle of a sand bucket. A pair of sunglasses, one lens missing. A glow necklace no longer lighted. Tops to plastic water bottles. These items peppered the shoreline where I walked each day.

When another man’s trash isn’t a treasure

The East Coast of Florida where I love to vacation has wide beaches and a long, gradual slope to the ocean. The lowest tide must be 100 yards from the sand dunes. The highest tides of the month may reach those dunes. That means anything left on the beach during low tide might be engulfed in waves and dragged out to sea by the incoming tide.

This day’s debris made me wish I’d brought a bucket and a pair of grippers or some gloves so I could safely pick up items and throw them away. But I decided I would use my bare hands and do what I could.

The day before I had seen some little children’s shovels — three of them — at different places along the two-mile stretch of beach I walked. I had picked them up and placed them on the racks holding the garbage cans near the beach exits, hoping the owner would find them or someone else choose to play with them.

But in my path today was a large Styrofoam cup, not fresh, somewhat torn with faded branding. I picked it up and then walked at a diagonal to reach the recycling bin near the dunes. I zigged back to the water’s edge.

A little further along the beach, I saw something white, about a foot long or longer. Another cup? No. I gave it to a good kick and flipped it over. It was quite sturdy, rather heavy, perhaps a piece of fiberglass or a piece of a boat.

The barnacles on it indicated it, too, wasn’t fresh trash. Again I gingerly picked it up, avoiding the barnacles, and zig-zagged to the next trash can and back to the water.

As I walked, I then saw a runner pause suddenly and bend down. She picked up what looked like large pieces of red Solo cup about to be taken by the waves and then headed to the trash bins, too. She returned to the water and continued her run.

The treasures leaving the trash

When I reached the same area, I spotted more pieces of the red cups so I picked them up and carried them to the bin, too. As I trekked across the dry sand, I passed what must have been the “party” scene producing the cups, narrowly avoiding a pile of vomit the sea birds were contemplating.

Then at the shore, I encountered a large can of Jack Daniels — empty, of course. I picked that up, angled my path again toward the recycling bin — and found I was making a large triangle around a group of young people on a blanket.

I’d been so focused on my task that I hadn’t noticed the group. But as I viewed the variety of cans and cups littered about them, I figured they had gotten a really early start on the sunrise. As in the night before. I hoped they might be courteous enough to clean up after themselves before they left.

But they weren’t. After I’d reached my turn-around point on the beach and headed back toward my condo, I passed by the now-vacated party spot. The young people and the blanket were gone, but I saw a woman stooped down, gathering cans and cups into her shirt to carry them to the trash.

Sigh. This group had left them all behind — to be cleaned by the ocean (to pollute it) or for a Good Samaritan to do it for them.

Don’t people get that? Their left-behind garbage will either pollute this place or trash it so no one will want to be here. Would they have wanted to come and spread out their beach blanket in this space if it had been cluttered with other people’s trash?

I don’t think so.

What are we to do?

“Leave it better than you found it.” That was our headmaster’s edict to our students, to all of us, at the Christian school where I taught for 11 years.

I remember going on trips with my Girl Scout troop as a young girl. After we’d loaded our gear into the cars. We would form a straight line, side by side. Then we would walk forward, each of us searching the ground for debris, picking up what lay in front of us. We left the area better than we found it.

These young people must not have gotten that message. Or embraced it.

It’s easy to judge such blatant disregard for the environment, for other people. Much of the trash I’d encountered was likely left behind unintentionally.

I remember returning from a walk on the beach in winter, only to find I was missing my water bottle. After I’d consumed the water, I had placed the bottle in my pocket to free my hands. It must have fallen out, unnoticed. That bottle, too, got cleaned by a Good Samaritan or pulled into the ocean by its grasping waves.

That day I hadn’t left the beach better than I found it. I hadn’t “taken only pictures and left only footprints,” as the signs in our state parks had pleaded.

Twice a day at work, some colleagues and I take a brisk, 0.7-mile walk around a little picturesque pond. It’s a wonderful way to clear our heads and get our blood pumping and, I believe, makes us work better when we return to the office.

But the trash around and in the pond disheartens me. (One time we saw a dead, bloated raccoon in the pond, his head stuck inside a tin can.) Sometimes the trash is there because the wind catches items in an overloaded trash can. Sometimes I see no excuse, just trash. Why?

A couple of weeks ago, my colleagues at a sister facility (who also take short walks during the workday) did take grippers and clear trash bags on a walk — and posted to social media their results in a trivia quiz, including such tidbits as “what is the area’s favorite fast food?” (according to the trash left behind).

They made their point and they made a difference that day. The people I encountered on the beach that day — the runner, the woman gathering cups and cans in her shirt — made a difference, too.

Our takeaway? Take it away!

But we will have to make a difference every day. And get others to make a difference too. Every day I walked the beach I found new messes. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as “take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but footprints.” We’ve got to “leave it better than we found it.”

In most cases, this will mean we treat others better than we treat ourselves. We will clean their messes.

But isn’t that what God did for us by sending His Son to die in our place? Didn’t Jesus leave us better than He found us? Doesn’t He offer that salvation to all people (even the ones who leave their trash behind)?

The Apostle Paul said as much to his disciple Titus in a letter to him. Paul encouraged Titus to reflect the power of the gospel in everyday life by zealously doing good.

“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

(Titus 2:11-14, NIV, emphasis mine)

Yes, God’s grace toward us should enable us not just to embrace salvation but also to live in this present age, in our own communities, eagerly doing what is good. Let us extend grace, too.

Because Jesus left us better than how He found us, we can do good to others (even if we have to side step a pile of puke when doing it).

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4 responses to “This Is Why We Should ‘Leave It Better Than We Found It’”

  1. Claire Avatar

    I have not walked on a beach for a long time! I remember picking shells, sand dollars on Corona! I hope people that leave trash, wherever, will read this lesson! Girl Scout Motto! Leave it better than you found it! Blessings, Aunt Claire

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sara Avatar

      Sand dollars! That would be amazing to see unbroken on the shore. Not loads of shells where I walk but some. Just silky, white sand for miles. Beautiful, but it does make the trash stand out, which is good if you’re willing to pick it up! Yes, leave it better than you found it.


  2. goodgriefgal Avatar

    Thank you Sara. You’ve left me better than you found me this a.m.
    I recently remember seeing a small bag of trash on a dock by the lake I hike around.
    My husband and I use to take a bag and pick up the trash often left there. Fisherman’s empty bait containers, hooks still attached to broken lines, soda cans, etc.
    I thought about picking it up. But between the COVID conditioning scare not to touch things or people, I didn’t have a picker upper so I left it. Plan to do better. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sara Avatar

      Awww… such a sweet response! Thank you! I have to say I was more willing to pick up the stuff on the shore because either it was being washed by the waves or I could easily “wash” in the waves or “dry clean” using sand. I figured it was fairly safe. Even so, I was picking it up with my finger tips, trying to make as little contact as possible! And I brainstormed my entire walk as to how I could carry a trash bin of sorts and a grabber tool without being overly burdened. No solution yet! Yes, we’ll both plan to do better. 🙂


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