As images emerged from the U.S. Capitol being overrun by a mob on Wednesday Jan. 6, many sparked a sense of horror among those watching.
One image stands out in a different way. It is a photo of New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim, kneeling in his dress shoes and blue suit on the floor of the Capitol’s rotunda, plastic trash bag in hand, picking up empty water bottles left behind by those who had smashed their way into the building hours earlier.
It was after 1 a.m. on Thursday Jan. 7, following what must have felt like one of the longest days of Kim’s career. Most members of Congress had gone home. But Associated Press photographer Andrew Harnik was still on site, and stumbled upon Kim quietly helping clean up.
“When you see something you love that’s broken you want to fix it. I love the Capitol. I’m honored to be there,” Kim told the AP. “This building is extraordinary and the rotunda in particular is just awe-inspiring. How many countless generations have been inspired in that room?
“It really broke my heart and I just felt compelled to do something. … What else could I do?”
I think many of us can relate to the feeling of wanting to do something, no matter how small, in the face of disaster. It reminds me of an article on the satire site The Onion posted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, titled “Not knowing what else to do, woman bakes an American flag cake.”
Such gestures — picking up trash, baking a cake — seem insignificant. But they can help us restore a sense of control and dignity. If Kim had not picked up any water bottles that day, the Capitol staff paid to do so would have managed just fine. But the congressman’s small act of kindness, amplified by the press to people all over the world, provided a meaningful counterpoint to the anger and hatred on display elsewhere.
All of us have had reason to feel powerless in the last year, as businesses and schools and events have shut down in the face of a pandemic that has not gone away no matter how much we all desperately want it to. People have been bitterly disappointed by election results and furious in the face of racism that feels like it may never be eradicated from our country.
Perhaps the motto of our era should be the Alcoholics Anonymous serenity prayer: “God, give me the courage to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I don’t have the answers on how we fix the problems our country faces today, or the power to dictate what happens next. So, this week I’m going to take a page out of Rep. Kim’s book and take a moment to do something small that is in my control. Next time I go out for a walk, I’m going to take a garbage bag with me and pick up some of the discarded masks and other pieces of trash that have been bothering me along one of my usual routes.
I’m issuing a challenge to the rest of the Hermiston Herald’s readers to do the same. Imagine if even one-tenth of the roughly 14,000 households that receive the paper grabbed a bag this week and headed out to pick up some trash (or pull up some goatheads or rake some leaves or paint over some graffiti, if that sounds more appealing). We could make a noticeable difference.
January 6 showed many different versions of America. I think I know which one is most likely to heal our nation.