One of my amusements during the holiday season is people-watching. Where crowds, lines, and captive children are the norm, amusement abounds.
During a pre-Thanksgiving swing through a local grocery, I landed behind a child and his mother in the checkout line. The boy appeared to be three or four years old, and he was fussy. Hanging on to his mother’s skirt, he circled around until he found safety, tucked between her body and the cart. Looking past us to displays of merchandise across the aisle, he pointed to something and tugged on her skirt to gain attention. Busy sorting through her purse, his mother ignored him — a mistake she would come to regret.
The boy continued to demand her attention, until ‘fussy’ transformed itself into ‘cantankerous.’ and he began to wail with rage and frustration. He was tired. He wanted to go home, and he certainly didn’t want to wait while his mother sorted through coupons. As his outraged protest grew louder and more high-pitched, his obviously embarassed mother tried her best to reason with him.
“Do you want to ride in the cart?” she asked. No, he did not want to ride in the cart. “Do you want to look at your book?” No, he did not. “Do you want me to spank you?” He certainly didn’t want that. “Do you want to go to your room when we get home?” That wasn’t acceptable, either.
In desperation, his mother looked at her overflowing grocery cart. “Do you want a cookie?” “No!'” he shouted. Startled by the unexpected response, she asked again, “Are you sure you don’t want a cookie?” At that point, the boy began to wail and his perplexed mother tried again. “Do you know what I just asked you?” This time, there was no reply; the unhappy child only re-buried his tearful face into her skirt, muffling the sound of his refusals.
Those of us watching were as amused as his mother was uncomfortable and embarassed, but all of us — mother and onlookers alike — seemed astonished by the intensity of the child’s “No!” Caught up in the perverse pleasure of opposition, his refusals had become more important to him than a cookie.
Unfortunately, the instinctive response of that child has become the habit of too many adults. Nay-sayers abound. Petulant, obnoxious, pessimistic, and filled with cynicism, their entire raison d‘être appears to be shouting No! into the face of life. Offered the hand of friendship, the challenges of collegiality, or the possibility of intimacy, they respond by clinging ever more tightly to their rejection of every overture; every gesture of conciliation; every offer of hope.
Tiresome and exhausting in personal relationships, negativity becomes corrosive and toxic on a social level. When whole groups begin saying No to one another, more than feelings get hurt. Society becomes segmented. Fear erodes acceptance. Selfishness appears, together with its unhappy twin, a hunger for power. From urban alleyways to the halls of Congress, from boardrooms to the halls of academia, we increasingly are confronted by the spectacle of enraged, petulant children shouting “No!” to those who dare confront or care for them: an army of aging children possessing adult strength and power: children whose negativity is capable of killing or reshaping lives without regard for consequence.
Recognizing the power of negativity to erode, consume and destroy, I’ve come to depend on the folly of hope: a willingness to believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, humanity remains good at heart, that joy is possible, and that, however broken trust may be, it still can be rebuilt. To paraphrase the famous words of William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, I chose to believe humanity not only will endure the shouts of “no” we call history, but that it will prevail over that history by the “yes” of courageous human hearts.
Is such hope naive? Has faith in humanity become outdated? Have the cruelty, ridicule, and small-mindedness of the schoolyard made dignity, perseverance and acceptance irrelevant? Faced with such questions, I find myself once again aligned with a poet of my roots. Let the naysayers of the world rant on. Carl Sandburg knew the people; he knew the power of grace; and he knew the people’s “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?”