So imagine that while you’re sleeping a load of manure gets dumped onto your front lawn.

As you emerge from the haze of sleep, your nose tells you something is just not right, so you drag yourself out of bed and look out the window. Your eyes confirm what your nose was getting at. 

After feeling every emotion in the book from anger to self-pity, you realize that though you did not choose to have the pile of cow feces dumped right outside your sunroom, you do have a range of choices available regarding how you respond.

Sitting on a Pity Pot – That’s what some recovering alcoholics call feeling sorry for yourself. You take out your phone and call everyone you think might listen and maybe even sympathize with your bad fortune.

“Life isn’t fair,” you lament. “I didn’t do anything to deserve this.”

Most of your friends empathize and tell you that you’re the victim of a miscreant from a neighboring village who has randomly singled you out.

Meanwhile the pile gets stinkier and stinkier. 

Seek Justice – “I’m going to make that S.O.B. pay,” you mutter, feeling the anger rising inside. You call the police, and an officer arrives within 20 minutes. Somehow, you think, punishing the jerk who did this will make me feel better. It’s all about justice. In spite of your situation you laugh as you recall what Archie Bunker once said on All in the Family: “What’s wrong with revenge? It’s a perfect way to get even!”

Throw the Manure at People Passing By – One way to slowly get rid of the manure pile is to throw it at cars passing by on the street. People do it all the time on the Eisenhower. They lay on their horns or flip the bird, not because you’ve done anything wrong but because they have this internal truckload of anger and they’re looking for some vulnerable someone to dump it on. 

It’s a favorite tactic of demagogues. They intuitively know that you’re carrying a load of crap that you don’t deserve, so they pick out some vulnerable group and blame them for dumping the stuff on you. And that gives you license to unload your crap on somebody else and feel righteous while doing it. 

Grow Tomatoes – Another option is to rent a wheelbarrow, transport the manure to your garden in the backyard, work it into the soil and grow big, juicy tomatoes that miraculously transform waste from cows into delicious food for humans.

That process may take a while. When you mix the crap into the soil of your soul, you don’t immediately get ripe tomatoes, if you see where I’m going. The transformation takes time and some effort. You have to water the plants and pull the weeds. You have to be patient. Tugging on young tomato plants won’t make them grow any faster.

My friends in AA often close their meeting by saying, “Keep coming back. It works if you work it.”

That’s why I have at times gone to therapy for years at a stretch. That’s why I go to church every Sunday. That’s why, when I’m with my closest friends, we don’t just commiserate about how the Cubs are doing, but we devote part of our conversation to tending our character gardens, watering the tomato plants with understanding and helping each other pull out the character weeds.

Response-Ability – It seems to me all of the options listed above are ethically permissible, except throwing my crap at other people. My first reaction to unearned suffering is usually feeling down or angry, and seeking justice is certainly morally acceptable.

Manure, to paraphrase a street adage, happens. Everyone gets a load of manure dumped on their front lawns a few times in their lives. Manure happens. The key to growing up — to maturity — is learning how to respond to the crap. 

We may not be responsible for the manure, but we can always be response-able.

It’s because the roots of tomato plants go deep into the fertilizer that the tomatoes ripen or mature. We never grow up by avoiding the crap in life. We mature because of how we respond to it. Any amount of growing up that has happened in my life has happened because I’ve learned how to take the manure in my front yard back to my garden and work it into my soul.

Owning My Own Manure – And I just thought of another possible choice to add to the allegory. I might want to admit that I ordered the manure, that it was delivered three days ago, and that I have been too lazy to haul it to the backyard. Maybe that’s why I have been getting so many angry texts and emails from my neighbors.

Owning our own crap may be the most telling sign of maturity there is.