I recently came across a man picking up cigarette butts outside the state library in Melbourne. At first I thought he might be collecting them to smoke the remaining tobacco but soon I realised this could not be the case as he continued to retrieve the butts en masse and without discrimination. How odd, I thought. Then I began to wonder if he might be a fellow artist involved in a kind of performance piece or endurance work? In the end I decided to do the unthinkable in a large modern city and engage the stranger in conversation . “Excuse me, do you mind me asking why you’re picking up cigarette butts?” He stopped and looked at me rather blankly, pausing before answering, “ …because nobody else does…” and walked away.
Did he mean he liked doing things no one else would do, or that he felt compelled by some intangible force to do what others would not, was he just a neat freak? I was still perplexed but he got me thinking about social responsibility, interconnectedness and our sense of responsibility to one another. In South Africa the Ubuntu people have a concept of community expressed in the phrase “I am, because of others”, philosopher Emmanuel Levinas spoke about “Being for the other…” and Dostoyevsky ‘s character Alyosha in The Brothers Karamzov states “We are all responsible for everyone else, but I am more responsible than all the others.” Connection to our fellow humans and a sense of responsibility to them is not a new idea, merely one that seems so lacking of late as to be truly surprising when one stumbles upon it.