As he walks the streets, parents often pull their children close, not wanting them to get too near the strange man picking up trash on the side of the road. Others avert their eyes, preferring to avoid the man locals have come to call “Pig Pen.”
Their fears are certainly understandable. After all, what kind of person spends hours upon hours every day picking up trash? He’s probably doing court-ordered community service, right? Or perhaps he’s homeless and will likely rob you if the opportunity presents itself. Best to simply avoid contact, right?
Not everyone feels this way, though. In 2014, the district council voted to recognize David for his service to the community by naming a West Sussex garbage truck after him. A few years later he was invited to have tea with Queen Elizabeth to thank him for doing good in the community.
Despite these honors, picking up trash isn’t what David is best known for. As a best-selling author and Grammy-nominated humorist with over seven million books in print translated into 25 languages, David Sedaris is one of the most respected writers of our time. But in West Sussex, they simply know him as “Pig Pen.”
David grew up in the United States where his writing career took off in 1992 when radio host Ira Glass discovered him in a Chicago club. David was reading from his diary and Ira was so moved by his storytelling that he invited David to be a guest on his weekly radio show. The rest as they say is history.
But how did David go from a Chicago club, to international fame, and then wind up picking up trash in England? It’s truly fascinating what you’ll discover when you are literally looking and sincerely seeing.
David often travels for work, writing internationally for various projects, and he eventually found himself doing work for the BBC—and he just kind of wound up staying there. Not so much a decision; it was simply where he ended up because of all the choices he had made leading up to it.
The same is true for me and you. We are exactly where we should be considering everything we’ve done up until this moment.
Walking the streets of England, David looked around him and saw some strange things—litter lining the streets of otherwise beautiful neighborhoods. Instead of complaining about it, he did something about it.
“I’m angry at the people who throw these things out their car windows,” David says, “but I’m just as angry at the people who walk by it every day.”
He’s charitable with his criticism, though, theorizing that people have simply stopped seeing the trash in their lives because it’s so ubiquitous. We get so distracted by everyday life that we get lulled into a sense of complacency. People are resilient; we can get used to anything—even to the clutter lining the streets of our lives and the pathways of our minds.
Name it to tame it.
How do we remove the clutter? The psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel offers a useful suggestion with the phrase “name it to tame it.” It’s the process of deliberately looking at our lives, without judgment, and to simply describe what we see.
This process expands our vocabulary to describe the world around us, synthesizing the new with the known for deeper understanding of our place within the fabric of existence--where we are, who we are, and why we are. As the psychologist Carl Rogers suggests, it is only when we accept ourselves just as we are that we are able to change ourselves. In other words, name it to tame it.
Many people seem to suffer from eisoptrophobia, though—the fear of seeing one’s own reflection. People will fail to see what’s right in front of them when they don’t like what’s staring back at them. And so, to avoid the discomfort, they simply avert their eyes from the clutter of their lives—just as the people of West Sussex do when they see David Sedaris coming their way.
Indeed, sometimes seeing others engaging in self-improvement can be so convicting of our own shortcomings, that we’d rather avoid them all together—lest we be compelled to do the uncomfortable but worthy and valuable work ourselves. Perhaps the only way to move past eisoptrophobia is to remind ourselves that the pain of change pales in comparison to the pain of staying where we don’t belong.
Remove the trash, reveal the treasure.
It’s truly fascinating what you’ll discover when you are literally looking and sincerely seeing. This is true of David Sedaris discovering trash in England, and of Ira Glass discovering David Sedaris in Chicago. And it’s also certainly true of me and you.
When you take time to reflect like Ira and David, to literally look and sincerely see what’s around you—whether in the streets of your neighborhood or in the pathways of your mind—you will not only discover the trash in your life, but you will also discover the treasure that lies beneath.
You are exactly where you should be considering everything you’ve done up until this moment. Not so much a decision, really; this is simply where you ended up because of the way you’ve lived your life leading up to this moment—whether by design or by default. Engaging in reflection empowers you to remove the trash from your life instead of waiting for others to do it for you, revealing the treasure hidden beneath, and encouraging you to experience the joy that’s already there waiting for you.
And who knows? Perhaps if you engage in this reflective process on a regular basis you too will one day have a garbage truck named after you, just like “Pig Pen Sedaris.”
How might you integrate regular reflection into your day, to name and tame the trash and treasure in your life? If not now, when? If not you, then who?
Jonas Cain, M.Ed. is a storyteller, magician, musician, and facilitator of fascination on a mission to help you experience abiding joy.