“You freaking idiot! It’s people like you who are destroying the country!”
I ignored the outburst, just like everyone else in the restaurant.
Well, not quite.
I ignored it because I had grown used to these types of things over the last couple of weeks being in town. The rest ignored it because it might be them the next time. They all were just like these two and any one of them could be in the next in a fight or argument, it just wasn’t their turn.
I had heard of the village, of course, and knew it was supposed to be charming, but after two weeks there on business, I grew to understand why it wasn’t the big destination it should have been.
A big part of it was that the political divide that I believed was ripping apart the fabric of society was even worse here than any place I’d seen. I was almost surprised that there was no real violence. And by that, I mean gun battles. Perhaps that was the next step.
Part of the problem wasn’t just the people arguing over it, it was he extreme to which it was taken. For instance, the people I thought should be acting from caring compassion instead pushed their agenda out of anger, spite and a weird sense of superiority. This got me even more than the ones who acted on hate, fear and self-interest.
The selfishness of the people went far beyond politics and economics. Every day actions were filled with it. People did the bare minimum for others out of duty to their employment, but no more. Others helped people, but out of deep felt obligation, not because of any deep warmth for fellow humans.
Frankly, I couldn’t wait for my business to be over so I could leave.
But a tiny part of my mind kept telling me that this was the way the entire world was, only these people made it visible.
I left the restaurant and headed back towards the hotel. I noticed a large group of people gathered around a door in a large stone wall.
As I approached I could hear the mumbling. “It’s not there. Where is it?”
“Hi,” I said as I approached the group. “What’s up?”
A woman turned and sneered at me. “What’s up? A child can see that there isn’t a wreath on this door. Are you blind as well as stupid?”
“Well, yeah, I do see that there isn’t a wreath,” I said. “I’m a stranger in town. Is there usually one here? Why don’t you ask the owner why they didn’t put it out this year?”
“You ask. Moron.”
A man turned to me, his face flushing red.
“You’re an outsider? We don’t like your kind here!”
“Sorry, but I’m doing business and…”
“Are you stealing our work?”
“No, uhm, if this goes through it should make even more jobs for your village. I hope.”
The man looked at me suspiciously.
“Well, you say you are job creator, so I’ll talk to you, but no foreign speak.”
“No foreign speak.”
“This door here appears every year at the beginning of December and goes away in January. It has for as long as people can remember, at least a hundred years.”
“Ah, a seasonal Brigadoon.” I regretted the words immediately.
“I thought I said no foreign speak!” He gave me a once over. “Well, just know that there is always a wreath on the door, always has been, always will be. Except for this year.”
I saw the woman I knew ran the local charity and thought I might do better there.
“Hi, Mrs. Walker. Sorry for my ignorance, but why doesn’t anyone just ask why the wreath is gone?”
“Why don’t you do it? Your kind expects everything done for them and handed to you on a silver platter! Next you’ll force a homeless person to do your dirty work!”
“Uhm…” Her eyes were like two empty holes, not a whiff of human kindness on her face. “Perhaps I will.”
I walked up and knocked on the door. The ring of people all stepped back a pace as as if expecting the door to open to an ogre, or worse.
But when the door opened, it was just darkness behind, nobody there.
I was about to leave when I heard a quiet, “Enter.”
The door slammed behind me as soon as I was past the threshold leaving me in that dark.
It only took a minute for my eyes to adjust enough to see the stairwell in front of me. I climbed for a while and realized that it was growing brighter at the top.
At last I entered a round room. The entire thing was encased in windows. I could see the town laid out at my feet, but also saw that the entire world was reflected in the town.
“Welcome.” I had not noticed the little old man.
“Oh, hello. Thanks. Uhm, well, nice view. I have no idea how you hid this tower in that town down below…”
He smiled. “As you may see looking out this window, that town is just a reflection of the wider world. It all may be exaggerated and it may all be made more plain to see, but what you see there is what is happening every place.”
“And the wreath?” I said remembering why I had knocked on his door.
“The wreath is my symbol of hope for the town and for the world. Hope that they would live in peace and harmony.” His smile went away and he looked down. “This year I have given up hope. What you saw out in this town is happening everywhere and will continue to grow. Next year I will not put the door out and the year after that?” He looked up at me, a tear in his eye. “Well, if things keep going as they are, I can’t imagine there being a town the year after that. Honestly, can you?”
“Is there nothing we can do?” I asked.
“What can you do? There are people out there driven by lust for power. There are people out there driven by greed. There are people out there driven by fanatical ideology. They have platforms amplifying their message a million-fold unlike anything anybody has seen in the past. They want the world to obey their whims and have been using the “divide and conquer” method of warfare. They use and abuse religion for their purpose. They use and abuse economics and politics. They twist people’s desires and fears. The stoke hatred. Negative messages and false rumors travel infinitely faster than good vibrations and facts. Once they land, they are a billion times harder to dislodge. And the people pushing know it. What do you have?”
“I can be kind to the people around me.”
“Go, go out and tell them that it is over. The wreath signified hope, the hope that humans would get better and improve.”
He turned and stared out the window.
I almost missed the quiet last statement: “And I have given up all hope.”
I went down the dark stairs, dejected.
“Well?” The angry crowd demanded as I emerged. “What type of foolishness did you get into?”
I looked at the faces around me and my heart sunk. Maybe he was right.
“It’s over,” I said. “Hope for our world has been extinguished. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
The crowd came closer to me, not letting me pass through.
“If you send an imbecile to do something, you’ll get an idiotic answer.” Seemed to be the response.
A lady pushed me. “Idiot. Why did you even go in there if that is all you have to say?”
I nodded and gave her an awkward smile.
“Perhaps you are right. I am an idiot. How can someone like me do anything?”
I looked around at all of the angry faces surrounding me.
“I used to think a smile and kind word could help. I remember singing songs about love being the answer. I thought there was a way I could get ahead and help myself while still serving mankind and helping those who were less fortunate. I used to think that perhaps, just perhaps, reaching a hand out to my neighbor could help.” I reached a hand out to everyone, anyone, in the crowd, and they stared at it, as if they thought I was asking for handouts.
I dropped my hand and my eyes.
“But I was wrong. I will continue to be kind, to help those around me, but I won’t expect anyone else to. I will just accept the fact that there is no longer hope while continuing to do as much good as possible. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
This time the crowd parted and let me through.
I left town the next day and went back to my routine.
Over the next year I tried to smile more and be kinder to the people around me. I tried to be more giving and to understand that those around me had their own issues and own problems. I suspended judgement when I could. I spoke my opinions and tried to support them with fact, but I did not condemn others for their opinions no matter how much they different from mine, nor how different the facts they brought up were from those I found. Compassion became my motto.
I did still notice that the vile and hatred was still there and possibly even getting worse, but I ignored it. There was little I could do beyond my small efforts to offer a hand of friendship to those around me and to help the few I could. A smile for everyone I saw could only hit a tiny fraction of a percent of a percent, but I didn’t care. I only worried about what I could control.
The next year I was called back as a follow up to the deal I was working. I sighed. Would those angry people break down my smiles and kindness? Would they finally break me?
I was surprised when the hotel check-in clerk smiled and was friendly. I heard another check-in person helping another customer, going beyond the call of duty to make sure they were fine.
I walked down to the restaurant and was seated with a smile and a good day. The waiter was friendly and I didn’t hear a single argument.
On the way back to the hotel I passed Mrs. Walker and she gave me a big smile and “Hope you are having a wonderful day!”
I was still thinking about her when I came up to the door.
Didn’t he say the door wouldn’t be there, that last year was it?
But not only was the door there, there was a wreath hanging from it.
As I was watching, Mr. “No Foreign Speak” walked by.
“Hello,” he said. “I don’t recognize you, you must be new in town. Welcome, welcome! I hope you have a great visit!”
“Thanks,” I said. “Have a great evening.”
I gave the wreath one last look, then, whistling a happy tune, walked back to the hotel.
From then on, no matter how bad it was, I never again gave up hope.
I had the idea and as I typed I realized how politically polarizing anything I said could be, which, of course, goes against the grain of the story! I can sit down and “prove” why side X is causing the division, but I know people who believe side X 100% who can sit down and prove that side Y is 100% to blame. I can take words from side X’s leaders and prove my point about the negativity and quotes from the side Y leaders and prove that they are doing it for the best of reasons but those same friends will find proof that it is exactly opposite. It does not matter how whacked out it is, I can find a “real” news site that will give all of the facts and evidence to prove it. I’m sure you can find a news site saying Taylor Swift has seven heads but uses mirrors to look like she only has one. She sings so well because she uses different wind pipes for different songs. Maybe not quite that bad, but almost!
But then, the point of the story is to not point fingers or “prove” our point of view. That is impossible! It is to be kind, to great people with a smile to still be friends, etc. They are trying to divide us, so we all, everyone, left, right, up, down, mixed up, whatever, have to remember that divided we fall, united we stand.
So, as the saying goes, Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Mankind (humans in general ;) ).
Off the soapbox…
This was written for the writephoto challenge, which is hosts by KL Caley. She provided the photo at the top of the page as well as the key word, “Wreath”. Here is this week’s prompt.