I was supposed to be completing my work. Pages of numbers scrawled in careless handwriting stared at me like a ravenous beast. Every day I would labor over the numbers, but it was never enough. I was behind again. I had my notebook and my textbook in my lap, my back slouched against the wall of the school hallway. It was awkward, but less because of practice. Day in and day out, recess after recess I would work on my missing assignments. Day in and day out, I would be sent out to the hallway while the class graded papers that I had yet to complete. Classes of students would file past, single file. If I thought about it, my cheeks would burn with shame, but I didn’t think about it. That just made it harder to handle. If everyone in Sugar City didn’t know I was a loser, they didn’t have their eyes open. I was in the hall more than anyone else in the fifth grade. I was in study hall so much that even when I went out to recess, the other kids already had their groups of friends. I was a loser and everyone knew it. Even when I walked across the stage to get my diploma wearing my high honors tassel on my square hat. Even when I graduated from college. I’ve worked my whole life to try and overcome that gnawing feeling of inadequacy that haunts me from those early days sitting in the halls, wishing I could disappear.
I read the book, Lord of the Flies, with my teenage son this week. He was assigned to read the book for school. It’s an incredibly disturbing book and I’m glad that I was able to help my son to process the horror of it. I wish someone had helped me to deal with the book when I had to read it as a teen. The level of savagery that the author portrayed has burned itself into my brain. It teaches important things about cruelty and the capacity of good people to do terrible things; the beast that lives within each of us is real and we need to understand it, even if it’s uncomfortable. As a mother of boys, the book is particularly disturbing because it is perceptive. It is unsurprising that the author was a teacher of boys. He knows them well, like I do. There have been many times when I have seen the savage instincts of my sons flare up and I have thought, “They wouldn’t survive a week on their own. They would murder each other within days.” They aren’t bad boys, but they are never too far from doing some very bad things. It takes constant nurturing and guidance to keep the flame of empathy and compassion alive. Like the boys in the book keep the fire alive, I have to constantly tend it. Hopefully they will learn to light their own inner fires of compassion and empathy. In a world where the lights of compassion are being snuffed out, I hope I am successful. For some boys, compassion comes easily. For them, a culture of cruelty too often encouraged and tolerated by adults can be the most damaging. That boy was Simon in the book.
I relate to Ralph, and his struggle to bare the burden of responsible leadership. I relate to Piggy and his asthma that keeps him from contributing in traditional ways. But most of all, I relate to Simon. Simon, the awkward introvert who keeps trying to say the thing that everyone most needs to hear, but he can’t quite get the words out. Simon, who craves the approval and love of Ralph so he tries to hide what everyone can see; that he is different and wrong and broken. Simon, the bravest and best of the boys on the island who was also the most vulnerable and lonely. Simon, the betrayed and abandoned, who loved the survivors enough to face the beast alone. He was the only one who knew the real danger that the camp faced and he died trying to tell them. The beast is not what you think it is. The monster you fear is within you. Within us.
In a culture of cruelty, I don’t want to be popular and cool. I don’t want to fit in. I would rather be Simon. I know what suffering feels like and I want a world where we have less of it. None of it. The beast is not in the other party. It isn’t in another country. It isn’t in another faith community. It isn’t in another generation. The beast is in you. It is in me. We can choose to climb the mountain. We can face the fear and discomfort of self-discovery. We can face our friends and share what we have learned whether they are in a place to hear it or not. I believe in the power of planting seeds. I like to think that before Simon was murdered by the boys he loved that he was gathering seeds on the island and planting them. He was the kind of person who plants seeds.
It’s interesting to think of how the Lord of the Flies might have been different if Ralph had valued Simon. What if he had listened to him? What if he had relied on him instead of on Jack? Perhaps a group of young boys would inevitably create chaos and cruelty. Perhaps a group of fallen adult people are doomed to do only marginally better on this island cut off from our God. Still, I think it is possible for the Simons in our society to speak out more often, even when we do it imperfectly. I think the Ralphs in our society can listen to us more. If we do, we could change the story of the world.