The Courage to Change the Things I Can

Mark Olmsted - Hollywood, California
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, August 19, 2011
Mark Olmsted

As a recovering addict, Mark Olmsted is familiar with the serenity prayer. But when he got fed up with all the litter in his neighborhood, Olmsted realized there is a difference between the things you must accept and the things you can actually change.

Age Group: 30 - 50
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I believe in picking up trash.

I’ve always hated litter; in fact, I once walked out in the middle of a date because my companion threw a wrapper on the sidewalk. In my opinion, littering is the most preventable and stupid of the world’s sins, and all the more infuriating because it has no proponents. For example, though I am also against corporal punishment, there are people who would readily argue that it is a useful and necessary form of discipline. But no one ever defends littering—even the people who do it.

Yet I am not one to throw stones. For the first several years of this millennium, I was a drug addict who sold crystal meth to support my habit. My buying and selling undoubtedly contributed to a lot of toxic waste created by meth labs. After nine months of prison and a commitment to sobriety, I felt I had to make amends.

After moving to a working class neighborhood in Los Angeles, my first reaction to the trash-filled streets was to say a well-known prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” As I walked my dog every day, I thought the litter was something I just had to accept. After all, what was I supposed to do? Pick it up?

The thought was like a pebble in my shoe. Try as I might I just couldn’t shake it loose.

So one day, I decided to do just that: Pick it up. In a leap of faith, I went down to Home Depot, bought myself an E-Z Reacher, and started plucking the empty cigarette packs, soda cans, fast food packaging, coffee containers, newspapers, styrofoam cups, and just about anything you can think of into plastic grocery bags. For over five years now, I have filled at least four bags every morning, one for each block of my dog-walking route. Sometimes, I do it again on different streets in the afternoon, especially if I’m having a bad day.

I believe in picking up trash because it’s taught me that you can’t assume to know the difference between the things you must accept and the things that you can change—you have to think about it. It’s taught me to question the premise of all sorts of assumptions I had previously made, from the idea that the only possible reaction to traffic is anger and frustration, to the belief that I was a hopeless addict who couldn’t possibly get clean.

Every morning, picking up trash is my answer to the questions: How can I be of service today? What do I have the courage to change? And every night, no matter how much the day didn’t seem to go my way, I can fall asleep counting the bags of trash I’ve picked up, comforted that in this lifetime I’ve been able to find one thing to do that’s unarguably, unambiguously good.

Mark Olmsted is a former drug addict who undertook keeping his neighborhood clean as part of his recovery regimen. He lectures on "The Six Spiritual Principles of Picking Up Trash" from his base in Hollywood, California, where he still picks bags of litter a day. His website is