They got into a fight in the cafeteria yesterday, the two boys. One was calling another a derogatory name until the victim finally punched the bully in the head during dinner.
“Did you see any problems with them yesterday? You have both of them,” my husband asked me. They are in one of my American Lit summer classes, but my students generally stare blankly at me because even though I speak English slowly and write all the words on the board, they don’t understand enough English and I don’t understand any Chinese. (I’m afraid it’s been a long three weeks for all of us.) There could have been all kinds of conversations and even threats that I missed out.
Today I observed the two boys, now sitting on opposite sides of the room when they used to sit next to each other. Supposedly one is better off than the other, one has a greater social standing than the other . . .
But I can’t tell.
Not by their clothing, not by their gadgets, not by their faces, or hair, or words.
All I see are two teenagers, and I scratch my head as to what caused one of them to have a swollen eye today.
Was it worth it? If I can’t tell any difference between them, should there be anything to fight over? Even if I could see a difference, why should that be a reason to fight?
I remember reading about a conflict in a tiny country I didn’t even know existed, and how many thousands of people over the years had died fighting over a piece of land and a notion of pride.
How tragic, I thought, that people who live and breathe and love and create and bake and laugh have to die because someone thinks something is more important than something else.
In the world-wide scheme of things, their civil war improves nothing. No one else in the world even knows about their battles, and even if they did, their war is meaningless to the rest of us.
How petty and foolish and tragic.
Then again, the majority of our battles are equally as unnecessary and as inconsequential to the world at large. We spend so much angry effort, and it buys us nothing.
It’s taken me decades to realize that I don’t have to fight. If someone insults me, my family, my heritage, my religion, my friends . . . I can walk away. The few times that I did take the bait and battled for hours or even days, I came away with nothing but more fury and frustration, and a lot of wasted time.
Perhaps there’s something enjoyable about fighting that I don’t understand. Some perverse sense of accomplishment or security or self-righteousness in being able to stomp someone into the ground, either physically or online. But what kind of accomplishment is that, to be the best bully?
I had two American students fist-fight last year, but afterward they became great friends, sitting next to each other in class and frequently writing about their “epic battle” in the rain. They both agreed it was dumb (especially since they were suspended), and that they’d never do it again, but in a strange way, it worked: they got out their aggression and an alliance was formed. They bonded by bashing each other. (I think this may only work with males because most females I know will hold a grudge forever.)
So perhaps occasionallyt a fight does work. But if that were the case all the time, our society would be the friendliest ever in history and social media wouldn’t be a war zone.
I’d rather just walk away. I’ve never once regretted leaving a fight, but I always beat myself up for joining in one, which means I suffered twice.
A voice near the front called, “Guide, what if we fight them off? Defend our lands? Why should we just let them take it all?”
Guide Zenos held his breath as many more calls of, “Let us defend ourselves!” rose up in the arena.
Several of his twelve assistants, seated on chairs to the side of the podium, looked around, startled at the sudden aggressiveness of the Salemites.
But Shem wasn’t surprised. He had long suspected this would happen. Salem had never before faced a direct threat, nor did they know how to deal with the idea of someone simply taking something. That never happened in Salem, so the natural impulse was to fight back.
But the Creator expected more from Salem.
Guide Zenos leaned forward and said, loudly, “NO.”
The arena fell into silent befuddlement.
He let his answer settle in before continuing.
“I know your desire is to not allow anyone to take your homes, but this is not the Creator’s will. Nor, you will remember, are these your homes, or your farms, or your livestock. All of it belongs to the Creator, as it always has. It is His will that you voluntarily leave Salem and retreat to safety. We’ve known this would be our fate for the past one hundred-sixty-five years, ever since Guide Pax saw this time coming. This shouldn’t be a surprise. We also know that Guide Gleace saw that no weapons of any kind should be taken—”
He couldn’t complete his sentence for the outcry that arose.
“No weapons?!” was the only phrase he could distinguish before the din grew too loud. Many were demanding to be armed, while many others were just as adamantly reminding them that was against the prophecy.
Another voice near the front shouted, “But what if this isn’t the Last Day? What if it’s just a preliminary attack? What if we have to rebuild once they leave or we destroy them?”
Shem sighed. He’d hesitated making any declaration that the Last Day was near, or ‘around the corner,’ as Mahrree had begged him to know just that morning. He didn’t feel that was his announcement to make.
But as he watched tens of thousands of Salemites, who he’d always known to be a peaceful and obedient people suddenly become agitated and even irate, he knew it was because of the spirit that came before the army of Idumea.
The Refuser’s influence was already there, stirring up those whose faith wasn’t quite as strong.
Shem said a silent prayer, asking if—
The answer came too forcefully to deny, and he had to grip the podium to remain upright. Staring down at his notes, he could no longer find his place because the words he needed to say were repeating in his head and would continue until he spoke them.
He swallowed hard and said, “The Last Day is coming. It will be upon us shortly. Very shortly.”
He didn’t shout or raise his voice. Yet the feeling of his words carried over the entire arena and stopped every tongue. The sudden silence was profound.
Just to be sure they heard him correctly, Guide Zenos said in the same clear voice, “The Last Day is coming. It will be upon us shortly. Very shortly. Defending ourselves is contrary to the Creator’s will. If we follow the admonitions of our past guides, we will be preserved to see the hand of the Creator fight this battle for us.
“But,” he continued in a sharper tone, “if we insist on fighting, we will fall before the army. What’s the point of losing your lives trying to keep a house or preserve a farm? The ancient temple site is and will remain a secure site. Should any danger approach it, I have full confidence the Creator will send a way to secure it again. He has promised us, through the words of many guides, that He’ll fight our battle. The Deliverer will come before the Creator’s Destroyer. I think we’ve all heard that before, haven’t we?”
Before him on the benches, thousands of men, women, and children squirmed worriedly, restlessly.
“My dear Salemites, I’ve been in battle. It’s not romantic nor heroic. It’s terrifying. Tragic. Painful. If the Creator says He will do my fighting for me, then I happily accept His offer. Each of you would be wise to do so as well.”
A man rose to his feet. “And what if we don’t? What if we choose to fight instead?”
“Then you fight alone,” Shem warned him. “Now, I’ll do nothing to prevent you. Salem is still a free land. You may choose what you’ll do, but I promise now that those who stay to fight the army will die. You simply cannot win. Idumeans are more powerful and more desperate, and they care nothing for anyone’s lives but their own. The Creator will not help you, because if you choose to fight, you choose against His will and you forfeit His protection.”
There was considerably more squirming in his audience.
“But I also promise,” he changed his tone yet again, “that if you follow the words of the guides, if you go with your families to the ancient site, you will be in the Creator’s care. I’m not advising you to surrender to Lemuel Thorne; I’m advising you to surrender your will to the Creator. Let Him finish this for us.”
He thought it would be enough, that the choice was obvious.
But apparently several hundred Salemites, mostly men, didn’t agree.