In college I had a transformational experience. I didn’t resuscitate a dying person, pilot a rocket into an asteroid bound to collide with earth, or clean oil off of an endangered species of owl; I spilled a bowl of cereal.
I was a freshman and in the midst of preparing for a Spanish exam. It was the morning of the exam and I had not studied as much as I should have. I walked to the dining hall nearest my classroom and made myself a bowl of cereal. Due to some faulty internal balance calculations, I set the bowl on the edge of the counter and it fell on the ground, spilling milk and cereal everywhere.
I surveyed the scene and weighed my options. I still had a tray with some fruit on it, and there wasn’t really anyone around. I thought to myself, “Well, what, really, are these people who work here paid to do?” Further justifying my escape by telling myself I had a Spanish test to study for, I stepped over the wreck of my cereal bowl and walked out to a table in the dining hall.
Still bothered by the incident, but at this point engrossed in an effort to memorize the Spanish verb for “to prance,” I was startled to notice a large, older man quietly standing next to my chair. He was wearing a dirty apron and had the look of someone who had already worked his career, and had taken a job in a University kitchen to pass his retirement years. We made eye contact and he said raspily but firmly, “Does your mother clean up your messes at home?” She did not. His point was well-made. My heart was racing and I became immediately sure that my sense of embarrassment at walking away from the scene had been appropriate. More ashamed than ever and slightly terrified of this man with an extreme resemblance to Vito Corleone, I said, “Got a mop?” He responded that a lady in the kitchen had already cleaned up the mess, and I said something about how “any other day” I would have cleaned up my mess, using the Spanish test as an excuse. Had the kitchen worker not already cleaned the mess, I may not have learned the lesson. I might have been able to mop my embarrassment away and even pat myself on the back for being so damned egalitarian. Thankfully, I wasn’t given the chance to forget about it.
As a result of this interaction, not only do I make sure to pick up rogue blueberries that fall out of my cart at King Soopers, I hold myself to rigorous standards of personal responsibility and make every effort to avoid hypocrisy. Because I can’t forget about a spilled bowl of cereal, I believe in taking responsibility for my every action.