A few days ago, I began a post with an admission that I had always—naively –believed that most people are fundamentally good. Given all the evidence to the contrary coming from cellphone videos and Presidential “briefings,” that belief was beginning to seem touchingly childish–based on hope, not evidence.
I came across a truly uplifting account in a recent issue of the Guardian.
It began by referencing a book that makes the opposite argument, Lord of the Flies. Most of us have either read the book by William Golding, or seen the movie, or at least heard the conversations it triggered. Lord of the Flies centered on a shipwreck in which young boys were marooned on an island without adult supervision.By the time they are rescued, they’ve turned a lush island into a disaster zone. Three of the boys are dead.
The book’s message is about the “darkness of man’s heart.” The lesson is hard to miss: without external constraints, we’re all animals intent only on our own gratification, capable of immense cruelty.
The author of the Guardian story–a writer– wondered if there had ever been an actual incident that might test Golding’s thesis. It turned out that there was. Six boys had been marooned on a rocky islet south of Tonga, an island group in the Pacific Ocean. They were rescued by Peter, an Australian sea captain, after being stranded there for more than a year. The captain had been ready to skirt the island, which had long been uninhabited, when he saw evidence of a fire.
Then he saw a boy. Naked. Hair down to his shoulders. This wild creature leaped from the cliffside and plunged into the water. Suddenly more boys followed, screaming at the top of their lungs. It didn’t take long for the first boy to reach the boat. “My name is Stephen,” he cried in perfect English. “There are six of us and we reckon we’ve been here 15 months.”
The boys, once aboard, claimed they were students at a boarding school in Nuku‘alofa, the Tongan capital. Sick of school meals, they had decided to take a fishing boat out one day, only to get caught in a storm. Likely story, Peter thought. Using his two-way radio, he called in to Nuku‘alofa. “I’ve got six kids here,” he told the operator. “Stand by,” came the response. Twenty minutes ticked by…. Finally, a very tearful operator came on the radio, and said: “You found them! These boys have been given up for dead. Funerals have been held. If it’s them, this is a miracle!”
What the captain found was the absolute antithesis of what Golding’s book predicted.
The boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination. While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.
The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer.
The moral of this true story? Humans aren’t “naturally” ignoble and greedy. We really don’t have to spend all our time and energy battling the “evil that lurks in the heart of men,” as the Shadow used to say.
This real-life experiment confirms a favorite parable, attributed to the Cherokee: an elder tells his grandson that there are two wolves in each of us, one good, one evil. The grandson asks which wolf will win. The elder responds “The one you feed.”
The challenge for all of us, but especially for those charged with implementing our social contract, is to construct governments that build on the essential goodness in the human heart–to create systems that nurture rather than divide, and value collaboration and kindness over conflict and tribalism.
We need to build a society that feeds the good wolf.