I’m catching my breath after a few laps at the edge of the pool at the gym the other day, when I overhear some rather provocative chatter coming from the nearby jacuzzi. I decide to jump into the human soup for a closer listen.
With a pretense of friendliness, an older woman is asking a local Hispanic man where he’s from and how long he’s been here, then uses the occasion to spout some Fox News anti-immigrant boilerplate opinion.
Another older Hispanic man looks at the woman on her hot water soapbox, and then to me, and rolls his eyes. In the past year, I’ve noticed what would have been whispered or saved for beer talk with like-minded bigots, now passes muster for public conversation.
A minute later, both of the men get out of the water, leaving me to consider whether to follow them, ignore this person, or engage in some kind of dialog with her. I choose the latter, at first more in the form of reconnaissance but have interrupted my workout several times since to jump back into the soup when I see her.
It’s my attempt to push back publicly, telegraphing to others that I don’t think this kind of talk should go unanswered.
So, today I offer an ancient but timely story worth considering. A kingdom was lost because of a single drop of honey. It’s a folktale from Burma, and here’s the gist of it.
“Perhaps we should clean that honey up. Perhaps we should do something,” suggests the Queen. The King dismissively tells her that “It’s not our problem!”
The honey drips from the rail onto the street where a fly quickly finds it and begins to feast. A moment later the fly becomes a meal for a lizard and the lizard, in turn, becomes a snack for a stray cat. A dog then pounces on the cat and the fur begins to fly.
The Queen, observes the fight below and now pleads, “Maybe we should do something.”
“It’s not our problem!”
The commotion brings out the owners of the cat and dog. The cat owner picks up a stick to beat the dog, and the dog owner responds by beating the cat. A moment later, they are beating each other.
“Two of our subjects are fighting down below, my dear. I really do think we should do something,” says the Queen.
“It’s not our problem!”
Now, street vendors and passersby, attracted by the noise, gather round to see what’s happening. Among them, there are, of course, cat lovers and dog lovers and soon they have all joined the fray.
“Maybe we should do something!”
“It’s not our problem!”
The riot in the street brings out the well-armed palace guards, among whom are…dog lovers and cat lovers. Soon enough, the soldiers are shooting at each other.
“My dear, I REALLY do think we ought to do something!” pleads the Queen.
“For the last time, I tell you, It is NOT our problem!”
As a pitched battle rages on, an errant cannonball strikes the palace and reduces it to rubble. The Queen and the King crawl out of the smoking ruins and the King is heard to say,
“Maybe that drop of honey really was our problem after all.”
Years ago, my wife and I were hired to go into a juvenile detention facility where we offered our 12-week program based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey model. Yes, we were there to tell folk and fairy tales to the perpetrators of murder and mayhem, the toughest kids in the state. A Kingdom lost was one of the first tales we told. I remember one young woman, sitting through the telling, arms crossed, glaring in a posture of defiance. But as the story reached its conclusion, she sat upright, almost as if she were hit by a bolt of lightning. Later she told us “ When I heard that story, I heard my story. It’s why I’m here!” A small verbal slight at a football game had turned into a violent encounter and a long sentence. She took that story to heart and asked if she could learn it and tell it to other young women at the facility.
I usually don’t make a practice of hitting people over the head with ‘the moral of the story” but in this case, I’m going to make an exception.
It’s not a drop of honey that threatens our Republic. It’s a drop made of foul bile and venom of public bigotry, and insults that continue to emanate from the would-be palace of the man who would be king. But it’s even worse than that. We don’t just have an indifferent leader. We have one who relishes a fight and turning his fellow citizens against each other, or as the saying goes, throwing red meat to the base.
Now I ask you to think about the playground bully you may have seen or been exposed to when you were younger. Or perhaps you’re dealing with him at work right now. What is happening? The bully has found a victim, someone who is vulnerable and lacks power. He enjoys watching this person suffer. Around him are his lieutenants and toadies, and though they might not have initiated the torment, they watch and get their kicks.
- Then there is the larger number of onlookers, the large majority who are uncomfortable with what is happening, but they don’t speak up. Perhaps they are afraid of retribution from the bully, or perhaps they simply do not know what to do.
- Then there is the far fewer number of brave souls who will speak up in defense of the target. Finally, there may come along the rare hero, who despite the risk to themselves, will directly confront the bully.
“If you see something, say something.” That expression has been hijacked to apply solely to crime and terrorism. Now it’s time to heed the directive more broadly.
Decide for yourself what the ‘drop of honey’ is that needs cleaning up. When we see or hear something that demeans an individual, or a whole group of people, maybe we should say something, maybe we should do something. If a conflict arises, no matter how small or close to home; perhaps in our own personal lives and relationships, maybe we should say something, do something before it escalates and destroys what we treasure.
So many messes though. It seems so overwhelming. Take heart.
Here are the bones of another tale.
An elephant comes along (no political affiliation!) and sees his friend hummingbird on its back with its tiny feet pushing skyward. The hummingbird has heard that the sky might soon fall and he tells the elephant that she’s in position, ready to hold it up. The elephant laughs and points out the hummer’s size in comparison to the vast sky. “I didn’t say I was going to do it all by myself,” replies the little bird. “But I will do my part. I will do what I can do.”
I’ll close with the words of Rabbi Hillel, words that my father repeated to me time and time again.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?
If you fear that the sky is falling, that our country is in grave danger, maybe we can do something. If not now, when?
(My retelling is based on a version of A Kingdom Lost for a Drop of Honey that can be found in Margaret Read MacDonald’s, Peace Tales, World Folktales to Talk About. Linnet Books 1992, a book I heartily recommend for young and old alike)
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Originally posted on Story Teller’s Campfire.
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