Need Cheering Up?

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.


  1. Happy Mother’s Day, everyone! Is this proof Rousseau was right? Maybe it’s civilization that makes some people smarmy, avaricious cretins.

  2. Yes. The two wolves. It seems to me that the reason there are two wolves is that both of them were and are needed for survival of the species. The bad wolf is the one that pits one tribe against the other in the competition for resources. The good wolf is the one that must create cooperative harmony WITHIN the tribe in order for the reproductive tribe to survive and even flourish.

    Trump is all bad wolf all the time. Every community has some of these. But when tragedy or great difficulties strike a community/tribe, the cooperative wolf dominates. Even during WW II we had bad wolves who tried to gouge the great money river, favored fascism and even hoarded essential food and items needed for the war effort.

    Trump and most Republicans are all about dividing us into warring tribes so they can direct who wins. Wm. Barr’s smug Jabba the Hutt imitation last week (“The winners write the history”) is the perfect example of the bad wolf licking his chops.

    Brooks is right, though. As with most gutter scum gangsters, the Trump “family” is overstepping and over-indulging themselves for the sake of themselves. It’s interesting to see how they’re reacting to having positive COVID tests within their wolf den.

    Maybe bad wolves don’t have to wear masks. Masks might make the alpha dog look weak. Karma is a bitch that must be served.

  3. A very profound and welcomed message, Sheila. Golding’s book and the feature film that chronicled the story resonated with our Sophomore class 1965 in a small college located in the middle of Hyde Park, south side Chicago, sharing the streets with the PeaceStone Rangers. The story throttled a lot of dorm raps for those of us preparing for careers in Boy’s Clubs and the YMCA. If you seek a spark of goodness even possessed by an angry unsettled disruptive youth, it is there. But if overpowered and shielded by an abusive father, the wounded narcissist from an island of misfits grows up to do significant damage.

  4. When I read the account I wondered about the cultural differences: The cooperative boys were Tongan, steeped in a cooperative culture with deep respect for being in tune with nature and with spirit. In other words, the good Would had been fed and trained in them all their lives. Would actual British or American boys done as well?

  5. ” How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world”……
    It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams, and cherished hopes rise within us only to be crushed by a grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned my ideals. They seem so absurd and impractical. Yet, I cling to them because I still believe in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” Anne Frank

    In the midst of a grim pandemic and an incompetent, corrupt president, Anne Frank helps me hold onto my faith. I visited the place in Amsterdam where she and her family hid from the Nazis. It seems to me that now is one of those times when like Anne Frank we all need to feed our white wolf.

  6. Thanks for a great story. I will have to say group dynamics is strange thing. As a youth I did three separate trips out west with the Boy Scouts to Philmont Scout Ranch. These were two week trips and we had groups of maybe 8 boys and two adults each time. We were backpacking in the mountains, carrying our own food and cooking our own meals, camping every night. Over the course of two weeks you could see how the group dynamic worked to build friendship or camaraderie.

    Each trip was an amazing experience, but there was one trip where we had an older boy that was pretty much an egotistical bully and I remember the effects that he had on the group and they were not good. The adults kept him in check, but I could see him in charge of a “Lord of Flies” scenario.

    I would have to believe that more often than not, you would get the results of the Tonga story, but it only takes one egotistical bully to create the possibility of a “Lord of the Flies” result.

  7. The two wolves is an excellent parable, I have found , It does not take many words from anyone to figure out from their own words that the world is about us or about them. From my first encounters with DJT many years ago, it’s was blatantly obvious which Wolf he feeds. From his posture, movements, expressions and words it’s all about him, everyone else is ether ahis Fool or his Tool to serve his ego, greed and endless desires.
    And honest person says We or Us a dishonest person says I or Me, that’s how they believe and act. And my best advise is to stay as far away as you can form them, and if they enter your world you must be prepared to fight or die because at that encounter you will only end up being their Fool or their Tool and discarded if you are no longer useful, or to save themselves. Ether way You, Us & I loose in any encounter with that type of person because the Wolf’s first meal was their soul , humanity and integrity.

  8. Thank you! I am under strict quarantine in assisted living and am surviving by reading favorite books but when I recently realized I was getting unusually ‘down’ I had to switch from Sue Grafton to Joan Hess! (I’ve already been through Janet Evanovich. This is a long siege.)

  9. Ray,

    Great contribution today… Many of my fraternity brothers and high school classmates reflect that bullying attitude as they mostly lived sheltered, privileged lives too. Coincidentally, they are all very Republican and all-in with Trump and his cult. It is clear which wolves they feed too.

  10. Happy Mother’s Day to everyone, but especially mothers! It’s their day!

    I think Carol’s observation a good one. There might have been a different outcome if the boys who were saved were not of that culture, and speaking of cultures, I have been waiting for a long time for someone to come up with a Cherokee saying. Sheila with her two wolves recitation has now provided me with the opportunity to use a three hundred year (1720) quote by Dekawidah from a book I have, “A Cherokee Feast of Days,” p. 400, by Joyce Sequichie Hifler, a quote by this James Madison of his day and one I think germane to today’s Trump World:

    “In all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast aside. You shall look and listen to the welfare of the whole people and have always in view, not only the present but the coming generations – the unborn of the future Nation.”

    Sometimes I wonder how history would read if the Indians had had the muskets and we (mostly) Europeans had had the bows and arrows. Innovation matters, from Gatling Guns to atomic bombs, but to what end, if any?

  11. Have you read the ‘parking lot grocery cart’ article that is going around? There is neither positive reinforcement for rolling your empty grocery cart to one of the cart corrals, nor is there a negative consequence to just shoving it into an empty parking place. Given that, the majority of people DO take their cart to the corral because… it’s the right thing to do. However, there are those few who just can’t be bothered – it is only about them and someone else will pick up after them. Note, there are also the people who grab one of the stray carts on their way *in* to the grocery (I’ll try to think to do that going forward) or take a few extra seconds to round up more than just theirs. If we were all animals, the parking lots would all be filled with random grocery carts (until an employee rounds them up). I take comfort in full corrals.

  12. For me, this incident may speak to “human nature,” which, in contemporary social science circles, is considered more a myth than a reality, but I think it’s more about culture (although I admit I know very little about Tongan culture). But the boys in Lord of the Flies were English, growing up within a historically dog-eat-dog capitalism. These other boys were from (or at least going to school in) a Polynesian state, which may have emphasized community over individualism, as many indigenous cultures do. I think our “natures” are to a large degree plastic, and culture is where we gain our sense of how we should (and can) act in the world. (Not incidentally, I think culture largely explains why the US is in the mess we’re in right now.)

  13. It is all about socialization beginning at a very young age. We Mammals must be socialized from birth, no matter where we fall on the spectrum. Socialization begins after birth with mothers milk. Humans in this modern world have substituted formula for mother’s milk. The result is still the same we are borne totally dependent on the adults.

    Here is where the paths radically change, it all depends on who your family is. At the extremes you have babies born into wealth and privilege, for others it is grinding poverty and a poverty of opportunity.

    I think what is clear from this article is the superiority of socialism, everyone took their turn, they worked with each other. I can reflect a bit that if Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged would have been guiding principles they probably would have all been dead.

  14. A gift for Mother’s Day to Sheila,

    If we have an answer at all, it would be that we could successfully respond to the NOBILE LIE that the oligarchy created in response to the civil rights demands of the ’60s.

    “In politics, a noble lie is a myth or untruth, often, but not invariably, of a religious nature, knowingly propagated by an elite to maintain social harmony or to advance an agenda. The noble lie is a concept originated by Plato as described in the Republic.”

  15. The boys in the Tongan culture had mothers who must have suffered terrible pain then terrible joy during the 15 months of loss then recovery. The guidance and love they gave their sons, to share the responsibility as well as the benefits of cooperative efforts, to give those in need the space to calm anxiety, anger and/or fear, arise from deep love for those in the present and hope for those to come in the future. We need that kind of hope and love now more than ever.

    Love and good wishes to all those who are celebrated and honored today as mothers of all kinds, whether with us still or gone before us, whether by birth, choice or affinity, touching our lives in so many ways that make us who we are.

  16. Has it always been true that the next generation seems better founded than the departing one? It seemed not when I was one of the former. We were told that we missed the puritan standard by quite a bit. I took that as a complement but I guess it was not intended to be that.

    Here’s another hopeful exercise for people. Watch Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” on Netflix. I was struck by the absolute opposite that her life as been compared to the current dope living in their old house. It’s a stark comparison.

    She is in the process of becoming what comes next after Chicago south side black girl to lawyer to wife to mother to first lady. She apparently has decided that her next gig will be author and mentor to young girls and she is world class in telling them to dream big in whatever field they think they can make the biggest difference in and don’t question whether you can. Instead figure out what you need to do to prepare to achieve those goals starting with your story; what you were born with and into, and what can be learned from what you’ve been through since. Don’t blame or brag just become closer to what you think is important to become.

    What a stark contrast from the current Whitehouse occupants who tell us every day what they deserve, in fact are entitled to, from us.

  17. True, Pete. How is it that the rich and corporate class calls such as social security (an insurance policy employees and employers fund and a government which merely administers) an “entitlement” but the hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts they translate into buybacks, dividends and capital gains “deserved?” In my book such giveaways from the public till are not deserved but pure gifts, and an example of brutal capitalism (self-funding) for the masses and socialism via political gifting for the rich (who return the favor via “campaign contributions, aka bribes). When O When are we going to publicly and exclusively finance political campaigns?

  18. Could not resist comments regarding Tongans. Connection to mission work brought Tongans to Salt Lake City to work cargo at new airport years years ago. This led to immigration to bigger cargo jobs at the new DFW Regional Airport near Dallas Ft Worth. My brother, now retired, was a heralded high school football coach. He noticed a 6’4” muscular large frame kid admiring the trophies in the lobby of the high school gymnasium. Our father fought in the South Pacific WWII came home with art of Pacific islanders. My brother asked how would he like to come out for football. The kid looked down and apologetically said our elders will not let us play. The coach got himself invited by Tongan elders to a backyard pig roast. He asked for permission to recruit their sons. The elders hesitated because their sons did not know the sport of American football. “We do not want them to be embarrassed.” My brother made a promise their sons will make them proud. Long story short, the fifth time Euless Trinity went to the state championship in Texas 6-A Football, a sports reporter flew in from New York to write a feature story for The Wall Street Journal. Yes, coverage of a high school football game on the front page. The writer did his homework. The front defensive line of Euless Trinity outweighed the front defense of the Washington Redskins at a lean 300 + ilbs each and held a finalist team to four plays inside the red zone to prevent a touchdown. Euless took over the ball at the one yard line and proceeded a March with nothing but running plays to score in the 4th quarter to win another ride to the state championships. The Tongans came to my brother to propose they teach the entire team the Hakka chant. It is a sacred chant among Tongans to rev up for war. My brother was hesitant. He finally agreed under strict conditions. The chant must be approved by elders of the tribal council and performed only in front of our own high school crowd. The Haka opened every game just before kickoff and kept student and adult fans alike standing for the entire game. My brother celebrated the culture of comadrie, team work and gentle strength, virtues of Tongan youth that influenced every member of the team. The story is much longer and better told as one of the greatest legends of Texas High School Football. If you like reading high school football stories and legends … search Coach Steve Lineweaver Euless Trinity Football. I flew home from Jerusalem to watch one of my brother’s games to sit (rather stand) among Tongan fathers and elders … what a thrilling privilege and honor.

  19. Love this, Sheila. If all of us, including all the sharers in this blog, would just observe “which wolf we are (I am) feeding” and perhaps move to the other side, we might find it holds more empowerment for ourselves and others.

    If we don’t focus on the Person/Administration/Perceived Negative Actions, perhaps we could change the weather, so to speak. Even if we dont, we will change how we see it, and no longer give it nourishment.

  20. Norris – Thank you for sharing!
    Sheila – Happy Mother’s Day and thank you for the hopeful commentary.

  21. Thank you, on this very strange Mother’s Day. Strange to think we have to scour history to reassure ourselves that we are inherently humane because the world has become so uncertain on this front.

    My favorite quote about motherhood, from Rickie Lee Jones, “Once you’re a mother, you’re a mother to all the children of the world”.

  22. Than you Sheila for the positive note and to Robert Ohlemiller for the Brooks reference. One question, where is JoAnn Green? I look for her comments regularly and find them spot on.

  23. For our betting pleasure, we are presented with ten separate groups, each group to be set onto an inhospitable isolated island. A homogeneous group. A 160+ IQ group. Three different religious groups. A gentle group. A deplorable group. A Yale group. A high school drop out group. A widely diverse group.

    We each would make wagers on the quality of life each of the groups develop.

    Many of you would put your money on the group made up of gentle individuals.

    Others would choose to wager on groups made up of cooperative individuals.

    Others would prefer the groups made up of religious individuals.

    Others would prefer intelligence. Others, survival skills.


    Of a group of people there are no homogenized characteristics–good or bad, gentle or brutal, selfish or cooperative– that dictate how the group will react to catastrophe.

    How they were raised has little influence, except on the individual.

    The environment in which they were raised has little influence, except on the individual.

    All depends on the quality of leadership that exists in the group when it becomes isolated. And excellence of leadership is primarily a random thing, except when it is valued and nurtured, and even then good leaders are rare.

    All subjective, of course, but, mostly based on my observations of platoon-sized groups adjusting to combat life in Vietnam, I’d have to puts my money and takes my chances on leadership. Leadership, leadership, leadership. And the determination to leave no one behind.

  24. Gerald,

    “ When are we going to publicly and exclusively finance political campaigns?”

    This needs to be the first of the reforms necessary to restore democracy.

  25. Yes Sheila, what a wonderful example!

    Unfortunately, it’s an example that’s breathing rarefied air. There are many examples in history where individuals actually sacrificed their lives for their fellow man. Average people, not leaders, not a member of hierarchy, just faithful! There were Jews during the Holocaust that sacrifice themselves for their fellow man, there were those in other religions, who sacrificed themselves for their brethren. People who were just average, nothing extraordinary, except their faith!

    History is loaded, as far back as one can ascertain, with examples of inhumanity! Because man needs to see its leader, and those for the most part, those leaders, have an agenda. Usually, they have a narcissistic quality and a superiority. They will show deference to no one, unlike faithful ones who will show deference to their fellow man. The key thought concerning deference here is the concern of your neighbor, or fellow man!

    So, history is full of slaughter, because even the righteous hearted individuals had to defend themselves against onslaughts of the narcissistic and barbaric leadership of the day. Kindness and unequivocal love is not en vogue, and that’s because hypocrisy usually, almost always, rules the day! Unless a crisis occurs and everyone is looking for a good mate for their foxhole. So instead of living every single day as deferential to others in all things, including showing esteem and being an integral part of those lives you touch, people tend to be tribalistic and disdainful of their fellow man.

    ” Execute true judgment, and show kindness and compassion every man to his brother; 10 and oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the sojourner, nor the poor; and let none of you devise evil against his brother in your heart.” (Zachariah 7:9, 10)

    This was a commandment throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament for that matter, and it is one that mankind does not follow! Like I said earlier, there might be spurts here and there, but on the whole, the exception to the rule is mentioned in Zachariah. When one follows a leader who is imperfect, the imperfection is magnified in those followers. A leader is only as good as their followers anyway, unfortunately it’s like the blind leading the blind! (Matthew 15:14)

  26. Actually our entire government structure is based on the notion that people are NOT fundamentally good. That’s why separation of powers, checks and balances and division of government power between a national and state government was deemed to be critical.

    “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. ” Federalist Papers #51.

  27. Some amazing comments and thoughts. Unity Church has a slogan: IF it is to be, it is up to me. We each need to take responsibility for our thoughts and actions. The leadership of our country is providing a poor example and dividing our country with lies and distortion. We, the people have the power to change this. PLEASE VOTE.

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