(For Charles Easley…and a bunch of other bears)
Once upon a time, Yona the polar bear lived on an island country that was home to many different types of bears. There were polar bears like Yona, black bears, brown bears, and panda bears. Within the country, there were many clans. Some of them contained only bears of like color, but others were more eclectic and were home to all different types of bears. Most of the bears lived in family units including one male, one female, and their cubs, but the family units varied too. Sometimes, male bears made their home together; sometimes, females did so, and some whole clans were all female or all male. Though the bears chose to live in a variety of ways and had come from many different points of origin, most days, life moved on peacefully. For on the island, it was believed that all bears were of equal value and importance. As a result, they strove to respect one another and live with honor.
As Yona matured, she found she enjoyed getting to know the bears outside her polar bear clan. So she became friends with bears from all the clans on the island. Eventually, she relocated to live in one of the mixed clans where black, brown, panda, and polar bears made their homes.
When Yona was not a cub (but did not have any cubs of her own) and was not old (yet not young either), it came time for the island kingdom to choose leadership once again. Periodically, bears from all clans came together to choose a Leader and representatives to sit in a council and govern the island. They used a contest to decide the matter, and the bears themselves chose the winner by casting votes. A key part of this contest was a debate. Traditionally, the debate allowed contenders for leadership positions to respond to questions from the community about how they would lead and also showcased their abilities to discuss matters and problem solve. Discussion and problem solving were valuable skills for the leaders to have. Those skills led to balance in leadership and the ability to create solutions no one group of bears would have been able to produce on their own. But Yona had noticed over the years that the two primary groups involved with government simply wanted to advance their own agendas and were abandoning discussion and problem solving in favor of dominating the other. Their narrow thinking focused on their own group, rather than on the island as a whole. Those affiliated with the groups adopted opposing points of view most of the time and were unwilling to work together.
It happened during this particular year, Yona found the two top contenders for the position of Leader to be power hungry and corrupt, and neither indicated that they would listen to those who held an opposing view. They were backed by those two groups that wielded the greatest power in government. More candidates than the top two contenders did enter the contest. However, the top candidates and their groups were so influential, they convinced the whole island that voting for anyone else was a waste of voice, so the top two contenders dominated the contest.
Yona arrived at the debate and was disappointed long before any mouth opened. For just as every year prior, contenders other than the top two were not allowed to participate in the debate, even though they were allowed to take part in the contest. Yona felt this was very foolish, for often the best solutions to problems come from sources one does not expect. So she sought out the other candidates and learned of their positions and personalities. This way, she could make an informed choice when deciding whom she deemed best to be Leader.
The debate began, and Yona listened to the top two contenders. As it progressed, she found one candidate particularly ill-suited to the position because when he spoke he showed no restraint, voicing whatever came into his head without any apparent concern for the effect his words might have. He talked over others to get his point across and was rude, vulgar, and brash. He was a polar bear, but most days, his white fur was orange, for he had a habit of rolling in red clay. Every time he opened his mouth, Yona felt his words were as tainted as his fur, and she wondered why so many in the community cheered him on while his words barreled over others without discretion, respect, or honor – qualities the island community supposedly valued. Then, she wondered if those in attendance cheered because they were not the ones getting squashed. In his speeches, the orange polar bear blamed others for the problems the island faced in commerce and trade. He mostly blamed the brown bears of the South and the panda bears of the Far East. He also convinced many in attendance that the brown bears of the East hated those who lived on the island and were coming to kill them – even though there were many brown bears living peacefully on the island and most brown bears in the countries across the sea were living out their own lives peacefully as well.
Yona had many friends who were brown, black, and panda. She knew the orange polar bear’s words were over-generalizations, which simply were not true of any majority, but to her dismay, her polar bear clan cheered loudest when he spoke. This baffled Yona, since he was engaging in behavior for which these same mothers disciplined their cubs. As the raucous, supportive voices pummeled her ears, she remembered that he was a wealthy bear, and on the island, the rich were more likely to get away with behavior that was not tolerated of normal bears. Even though that too made no sense given the supposed values of the community.
Yona did not approve of the other top candidate either. She was a polar bear too, surrounded by controversy and accusations of corruption and was not innocent of taking verbal jabs at those who supported her opponent. She was also the wife of a previous Leader, and this bothered Yona. The community had recently elected a Leader who was the son of a previous Leader, and corruption had only grown worse. Distribution and frequent shifting of power had been built into their government to help prevent corruption. Electing leaders from the same family created an environment in which corruption was likely to thrive and did not allow adequate representation of the greater community’s voice. Yona was shocked that these were the contenders between which the most influential groups would have the community choose. She knew there were many bears who would do a far better job.
Neither of the candidates focused on presenting unique ideas that adequately addressed the important issues. They spent far more time trying to one up the other during the debate. The angry voices of the community grew thunderous and more belligerent, as those in attendance threw their support behind one candidate or the other, one group or the other. Yona was appalled. What should have been a showcase of the contenders’ ability to work with everyone on the island had become a verbal brawl, in which cubs would have been ashamed to participate. Yet, the community fed the fray, cheering louder when one candidate trapped the other with words. The whole contest and ceremony turned embarrassing, vile, and devoid of honor, as what seemed to be the worst representation of the community paraded to the adulation of groups that had worked themselves into a furor. The two sides were so devoted to winning the contest they seemed to have forgotten that the Leader was supposed to work for the well being of the whole island. The position for which they battled was supposed to be about the greater good – not about winning. Yona edged her way out of the debate and sought the quiet of her cave.
The day arrived when the contest would be decided by the vote. It arrived in bombastic noise and fervor. The normally peaceful bears were viciously mean to each other. Painful as it was given the circumstances and continuous racket, Yona cast her vote and awaited the decision. Much to her dismay, after the final votes were counted and night fell, the orange polar bear had emerged victor. The community erupted into a cacophony – his supporters rejoicing, her supporters lamenting, each side accusing the other of fraud and manipulation.
Yona felt alone, profoundly alone. Everyone was shouting so their voices could be heard, and no one was listening. No one seemed to understand the gravity of what had just happened to their procedure for choosing the Leader. The island country had not gotten the Leader they needed, but they had certainly gotten the Leader they deserved. The louder the voices became; the more alone Yona felt. So she walked away, seeking solace in the woods, away from polluting sounds. In the forest wrapped in silence, she felt less alone, but the noise followed her through the trees. Loneliness crept around her again, and she felt even lonelier when the sounds that reached her were those of jubilation for the orange polar bear’s victory. Yona could not understand why anyone could be happy considering the worthiness of the contenders. She also could not understand how the bears could be so hateful to one another. And though she believed both contenders ill suited to the task, she could not understand why the the community selected the bear who seemed to believe he was above the values and rules of the entire island.
This was not the first time Yona had voted for a candidate who had lost. It was however the first time someone had openly said so many horrible words about entire groups of bears and still been chosen to lead the island. It was the first time that someone who demonstrated no personal restraint had been chosen to lead the island. It was the first time someone who openly advocated treating certain types of bears as inferiors, a notion completely antithetical to the values of the island, had been awarded the position of Leader. At least, this was true for as long as Yona could remember.
A stick snapped behind her, and Yona turned to find her sister following.
“See!” her sister rejoiced. “Sometimes, the process works!”
Despite the overwhelming hollowness she felt, Yona meted her words. “No matter what happened, I could not have rejoiced given these circumstances.” She tried very hard not to sound accusatory. “But this? Please don’t ask me to celebrate this.”
Her sister’s expression darkened. “Don’t be such a cub just because your bear didn’t win!” she shouted back, her hair of her scruff bristling.
Yona lowered her voice. “I’m not grieving because a certain bear won or did not,” she replied. “I am grieving because I have always been taught by my community that being respectful and honorable is right and valued. I have been taught that if I was respectful and honorable I would go far in life. I even believed this! But my community has just proven to me none of this is true. What is valued by my community are wealth, bravado, cruelty, and self-centrism. These characteristics are what is rewarded, and this has been communicated very loudly.” Yona walked away.
As she went, she blinked back tears. Her community had definitively proven they were not who she thought or even hoped they were. When it came down to matters of importance, her community had chosen what was entertaining – entertaining in a horrifying, cruel way. By making themselves feel superior through pushing others down, on the island itself and in the lands beyond; by living vicariously through the orange bear as he indulged in his impulses without fear. They were distracted by over-confidence and caught up in emotion. That was all that mattered to them. That was elevated, revered, and validated.
For days, Yona wondered through the forest, retreating further in when anyone attempted to engage her. If they approached, she shut them down as soon as the contest was mentioned. No matter the view, Yona wanted nothing to do with it. She did not want to hear voices or shouting or rage or elation. She only wanted silence. Then one morning, as she strolled near the clan of all male bears, she heard a familiar voice, singing.
Padding through a glen and across some boulders, Yona followed the voice until she came upon Professor Dreadlocks, who lived in the nearby clan and was sitting on a large, flat stone overlooking the river. The Professor was gazing east into the sunrise, and his voice carried over the water. Yona had known the Professor for many years and believed him aptly named. He was a black bear with shaggy fur, which hung in clumps streaked with silver grey, hinting at his age or wisdom or both. Yona had always liked and respected him. He was kind-hearted, insightful, and always shared incredible stories. She sat down nearby and listened to his song.
He was singing to everyone, to her and all of the other bears, and his song spoke of resolve, strength, and kindness no matter the circumstances. It spoke of pressing forward and living life fully despite being devalued. It spoke of connection to others and of inclusion, freedom, opportunity, and love for all, despite obvious differences. Yona sat listening to the song as he sang on for hours. It echoed the values she had always thought were inherent to the island community. It made her feel better and sad all at once, for she knew the boisterous, poisonous rhetoric of the contest had caused her to lose her voice when she shouldn’t remain quiet.
At last, she approached the Professor, thanked him for his song, and explained how her astonishment with the community had rendered her silent.
The Professor thanked her for her appreciation but reminded her that allowing aggressive, abusive ideology push her into isolation divided the community even further and erected walls between her and the other bears. “Let’s keep the lines of conversation open because, if not, then the divisive ideology will have definitely won.”
As Yona walked away, she was struck by the caring reprimand. The Professor was right – she must find her voice and let it be heard. For words are the Great Connector.
Yona made her way toward her favorite childhood haunt – a circular glade surrounded by four boulders with a crooked tree in the middle. Inside, Yona felt home and not so lonely anymore. She needed time to determine how she should make her voice heard, and she felt that the midst of nature would be where she would find the answer. She needed to listen. She must listen, for it was something that the community of bears seemed to have forgotten. They no longer listened to understand one another. They only heard to learn how to best one another, and this would, in the end, rip their community apart.
She spent days reflecting. How was she to reach her community – those who were hurting, those who were gloating, and those who were caught in the middle? How could she bring balance when the anger and shouting had escalated so?
She spent weeks listening – to the leaves, trees, grass, river, rains, and stones. The sounds of nature sang in her ears constantly, softly. And then as the soft breeze blew thought the glen, the answer came – sing often; sing softly.
For you see, those who were demeaning others and dividing the community were doing so very, very loudly. And while their tactics might have worked during the contest as they barreled over one another, they couldn’t maintain that volume and intensity forever. But nature sang softly, and it sang all the time. Eventually, all had to listen.
So Yona would let nature be her guide. She would lower her voice and walk out of the glen into the community. Wherever she was, bears would be treated with respect and honor no matter their color, lifestyle, or land of origin. If others were not treated this way, she would speak out and stand between the aggressor and the devalued. Every where she went, in every clan, she would bring respect and honor with her, and she would keep singing. Singing to everyone she met, whether the Leader agreed with her or not:
I’ll try not to hurt you.
I’ll always respect
The life that is you,
And whatever comes next,
I’ll journey beside you,
And when you’re not strong,
I’ll carry you
So we can both still move on.
I don’t care what you look like,
Or what you believe,
Where you are from,
Where you roll up your sleeves,
To make your own home in the way you see fit,
As long as you’re not crushing others with it.
If they come to take you,
Beside you I’ll roar.
I protect life.
Just as before,
When the one who was Leader
Showed a bit more restraint,
Meted his words,
And wore less clay paint.
Let’s sing of what’s balanced
And helpful and wise.
The truth from our mouths
Will smother loud lies.
And though we’re not shouting, we will still be heard,
For kind whispers can silence the angriest words.