Never mind the traditional excesses of Thanksgiving, the horrors of Black Friday or the panic of the pre-Christmas rush. For afficionados of the sport of people-watching, the up-coming holiday season is the best season of the year. With crowds of impatient adults and captive children navigating the stormy seas of covetousness and retail madness from now until New Year’s Day, amusement should be easy to find.
In fact, I’ve already been amused. During a swing through our local Target store, I found myself waiting in the checkout line behind a child and his mother. The boy appeared to be about three, and he was fussy. Hanging on to his mother’s skirt with both hands, he circled around and around until he found a comfortable spot, sandwiched between his mother and the cart.
Peeking out from the folds of her skirt, he looked past us to the vibrant displays of candy and merchandise across the aisle. Using one hand to point to something, he tugged on her skirt with the other to gain attention. Busy sorting through her purse, his mother ignored him while the rest of us started paying attention.
Eventually pulling at her skirt with both hands, the boy grew more insistent, and “fussy” became full-blown “cantankerous”. Finally pushed over the edge by parental insensitivity and no longer caring about the little tchotchke that had captured his attention, he began to wail with rage and frustration. He was tired. He wanted to go home. He especially didn’t want to be waiting in line while his mother sorted through coupons and double-checked lists. As his outraged protest grew louder and more high-pitched, his obviously embarassed mother tried her best to shush him.
“Do you want to ride in the cart?” she asked. No, he didn’t want to ride in the cart. “Do you want to look at your book?” No. He didn’t care about the book. Gritting her teeth just slightly, his mother went down the list. “Do you want me to spank you?” “No”. “Do you want to go to your room when we get home?” “No.”
In desperation, his mother looked at her grocery cart and asked, “Do you want a cookie?” His response was strong and immediate. “No!” Obviously startled by the refusal, his mother asked again, “Are you sure you don’t want a cookie?” “NO! No cookie!” We could see the amusement beginning to dawn on the woman’s face as she looked down at her boy. “Do you know what I just asked you?” “NO!” he said, reburying his face into her skirt.
Funny as the little drama was for those of us watching, uncomfortable and embarassing as it obviously was for his mother, what made it most astonishing was the intensity of the child’s no. Caught up in the sheer, perverse pleasure of negativity, his no had become more important to him than a cookie.
Unfortunately, the instinctive response of a child can become the habit of an adult. It doesn’t take much looking to find the nay-sayers among us. Often petulant, frequently obnoxious, at times pessimistic or filled with cynicism, their entire raison d‘être appears to be shouting No! into the face of life. Offered the hand of friendship, the challenge of collegiality, the possibility of intimacy or a path to greater understanding, they respond by clinging ever more tightly to their rejection of every overture, every gesture of good will.
Tiresome and exhausting in personal relationships, such negativity becomes corrosive and even toxic on a social level. When whole groups begin saying no to one another, more than feelings get hurt. Society becomes segmented. Fear begins to erode acceptance. Selfishness appears, together with its unhappy twin, power-hunger.
From urban alleyways to the halls of Congress, from boardrooms to lecture halls, we increasingly are confronted by the spectacle of enraged, petulant children shouting No! Unfortunately, these “children” also possess adult strength and power. Their no can kill, or reshape lives without regard for consequence. In the face of such incessant negativity, people begin to withdraw from one another, engendering isolation and despair.
Understanding full well the power of negativity to erode, consume and destroy, I still prefer the folly of hope – a willingness to believe, despite substantial evidence to the contrary, that humanity is as capable of good as of evil, that joy remains a lively possibility and that, no matter how shattered, trust can be rebuilt. Paraphrasing Faulkner’s famous words, I choose to believe humanity will be able not only to endure the shouted No! of history but also to prevail by the Yes! of courageous human hearts.
Is such optimism naive? Has faith in humanity become outdated? Have the cruelty, ridicule and small-mindedness of the schoolyard made dignity, perseverance and grace irrelevant? Faced with such questions, I can do no more than affirm human decency, acknowledge the possibility of grace and align myself once again with a poet of my roots. Let the naysayers of the world rant on. Carl Sandburg knows the people, and he knows the peoples’ Yes.
The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it…
The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
“I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.
If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time.”…
Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way,
for lights beyond the prison of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.
The people know the salt of the sea
and the strength of the winds
lashing the corners of the earth.
The people take the earth
as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.
Who else speaks for the Family of Man?
They are in tune and step
with constellations of universal law.
The people is a polychrome,
a spectrum and a prism
held in a moving monolith,
a console organ of changing themes,
a clavilux of color poems
wherein the sea offers fog
and the fog moves off in rain
and the labrador sunset shortens
to a nocturne of clear stars
serene over the shot spray
of northern lights.
The steel mill sky is alive.
The fire breaks white and zigzag
shot on a gun-metal gloaming.
Man is a long time coming.
Man will yet win.
Brother may yet line up with brother:
This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
There are men who can’t be bought.
The fireborn are at home in fire.
The stars make no noise,
You can’t hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?
In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people
“Where to? what next?”