The Street Sweeper

Martin Luther King Jr. said “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all of the hosts of heaven and earth will pause and say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'”

His speech called “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” was delivered in Chicago, Illinois on April 9, 1967 and one of the key points he emphasized is that whatever we are doing, however big or small that is, we should do it well, and when we do that, we will master the length of life.

One fine morning, I was walking along the streets of Bacolod City, Negros Occidental. The sun was slowly climbing up as I found myself staring at the street sweeper further along the sidewalk. He was the only one cleaning the entire portion of the road. With great admiration, I came near him.

“Good Morning, Manong!” I said.

“Good Morning, Maam!” He cheerfully replied.

“Kagina ka pa diri gapaninlo sang dalan? (Were you sweeping the street since this early morning?)” I asked.

“Huo day kay kahigko gid. Wala labot mga tao sa palibot daan. (Yes, Miss, because it is very dirty. People really don’t care about their surroundings.)” He exclaimed while dumping the mound of garbage onto his push cart.

“Gani. Gasalig lang sila nga may matinlo sang ila sagbot. (Indeed. They just depend that some people will clean up their mess.)”

“Huo, gasalig sila sa mga tao nga parehas sa akon. (Yes, they rely on people like me.)”

When he said those words, I remained quiet on the red brick walkway, feeling like a complete idiot talking about trash with the person who is responsible for making the streets clean. Momentarily, with the hopes of happily ending the conversation, I said:

“Inspirasyon ka gid para sa akon, Manong. Salamat gid sa oras mo. (You are an inspiration to me, Sir. Thank you so much for your time.)”

He flashed a smile and continued sweeping.

While I was moving forward with my morning stroll, I kept on thinking about that little talk we had. Then I asked myself this question, “What will the city look like if there were no street sweepers?”

Given the situation that most people hardly ever think about where their garbage ends up, I doubt that the streets will be clean. What more if it is NO ONE’S job to clean up the surroundings?

I believe everyone has to change – most especially me. That it is not a joke when we talk about cleanliness and responsible waste disposal. That pollution is really true, and the effect of it makes the planet worst – it’s not just some random lesson in grade school, it is something that we are actually “existing” in.

Cleaning the Matutinao River side before approaching Kawasan Falls in Badian, Cebu. (Photo by Noel Galang)

Cleaning the Matutinao River side before approaching Kawasan Falls in Badian, Cebu. (Photo by Noel Galang)

It’s our job to do great things – be who we ought to be and excel in different fields that we are interested in. Aside from that, it is also our job (and our duty) too to become stewards of our environment, to take care of it, and to make our world livable and sustainable. If we could do both things, then we could master the length of our lives.

From that short encounter with a stranger, I was changed. That despite “cleaning the streets” was their job, I should do my part as a good citizen and be responsible for my own garbage – because the thought of not seeing them exist, the street sweepers, scares me. The thought that the world will be flooded with junk because people fail to “be responsible” of their actions.

I did a painting of that scene in the city of Bacolod – a reminder that even a street sweeper could change the way we see things, perhaps align our perspectives to what is more important – our concern for the environment, our concern for the Earth, our concern for the people inhabiting it.

With that being said, I could not agree more to what Martin Luther King Jr. added in his speech, “… a man has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow confines of his own individual concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

Let’s make a massive positive change in society. Let’s do it together. Let’s do it Philippines!

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