The First Walk
WHEN I WENT FOR A WALK on the day I met the man, my state of mind was dark.
In addition to the problems of my own life, conditions in our country and the world had thoroughly depressed me.
If I had been asked that morning to comment on the meaning of life, my response would have been, “What meaning?”
Life, in general, seemed virtually meaningless to me.
* * *
There is a path I follow when I walk. Several miles in length, it winds through the community I live in.
I had barely started along the path that morning when I saw a man ahead of me.
He was strolling so leisurely that I overtook him in less than a minute.
As I began to pass him by, he spoke. “Good morning,” he said.
I grunted disparagingly. “Not very,” I responded.
“Why do you think that?” he asked.
I had no desire for conversation. “Nothing specific,” I answered, starting to move away from him.
“May I walk with you?” he asked.
My inclination was to say in a curt, dismissing manner, “No; please don’t.”
But his tone of voice was so disarming that I didn’t have the heart to do it.
“I wouldn’t be much company,” I warned him.
“Not so,” he said. “I think you’ll be very interesting company indeed.”
I had no idea why he would say such a thing, not knowing me at all. But I shrugged and made a submissive sound. “It’s up to you,” I said.
“Good.” The man sounded so genuinely pleased that it made me feel guilty for my unfriendly behavior toward him.
He extended his hand as we walked on together. “Delighted to meet you,” he said.
That I didn’t understand at all. Why should meeting me delight him?
I let it go and, briefly, grasped his hand, looking at him.
He was approximately my height, which is six-foot two, his age somewhere in the middle or late forties, I estimated. He had brown hair and light blue eyes and was wearing an outfit predominantly white—shirt, trousers and jacket. He was a handsome man but it wasn’t that which struck me most. It was the expression on his face which took me by surprise.
He seemed the most deeply serene-looking man I had ever met in my life, as though he was possessed of such an inner knowledge and tranquillity that nothing in this world could touch him, much less harm him. I could not help but feel a sense of awe in his presence.
“You live around here?” I asked.
“No.” He smiled and shook his head. “This is the first time I’ve been here.”
I presumed that he was staying with someone in the community and said no more. To be truthful, I wasn’t interested.
“So,” he said. “What is it about the morning that makes it not very good?”
I made a scoffing noise. “What is there that makes it good?” I challenged.
“A beautiful day?” he suggested.
“In a country where one out of every five of our thirty-one million adolescents has at least one serious health problem and can’t get basic care?” I said. “In a country where the yearly cost of basic pre-natal care, nutritional guidance and counseling for all prospective mothers can be spent on one day of war?”
“You read that article in the morning paper,” the man said.
“Yes,” I answered, glumly. “I read the newspaper every morning while I’m having coffee. I don’t know why I bother. All it does is anger and depress me.
“The article also said that each year half a million children under the age of three go without immunization against the most common childhood diseases. That each year, seventy-five thousand women receive pre-natal care for the first time at the moment they enter the delivery room. That the infant mortality rate increases every year.”
“It’s inexcusable,” he said.
“To say the least,” I muttered. I blew out aggravated breath. “Schools closing. Teachers underpaid or fired. Mass illiteracy. Child care limited or non-existent. Homeless people mounting in number. Unemployment rising steadily. The wealthy growing wealthier. The poor growing poorer. Drug sales running rampant in the cities. Streets filled with violence. Corruption in politics and business. Military expenditures soaring in the hundreds of billions. Gigantic debts assumed by this generation to be paid off by the next. Stagnant economic growth. The infrastructure collapsing—roads, highways, bridges, airports, sewers, water supply systems. Air and water pollution of every sort. Destruction of the environment. Ongoing international chaos. Did you say it was a beautiful day?”
We walked in silence for a while before I said, “I’m sorry. I had no right to take that out on you.”
“Not at all,” he said. “I sympathize. These things are painful to consider.”
“You feel as I do then?” I asked.
“Entirely,” he said. “These problems could be terminal.”
“Is there any answer to them?” I asked. “Or will they just go on until man is extinct?”
“There’s always an answer,” he replied.
* * *
“I’d like to know what it is,” I said.
“The people,” he told me.
“You mean the voters, don’t you?” I asked.
“Primarily, yes,” he answered. “Most voters are passive though. They attach themselves to some party, then leave it to their leaders to manage things. They never investigate what’s being done. They believe what their leaders say. The voter will likely never make the least effort to know what the man he voted for has actually done in his official capacity.”
“I won’t argue with that,” I told him. “Party politics dominate the country.”
“Indeed they do,” he said. “In political campaigns, voters become agitated about their party, not about the interests of good government. The most successful party politicians are those who can best reach and control voters through their appetites, weaknesses, selfishness and prejudices.”
I looked at him in curiosity. His words seemed fully as provoked as mine. Yet, to my surprise, there was no sign of anger in his voice or expression. How could that be? I was unable to speak of these things without becoming incensed. Yet he seemed perfectly composed.
“Bad government will continue while those who are governed are selfish, indifferent and uninformed,” he continued. “So long as people/remain blind to the fact that they get what they give individually or as a whole.
“The collective desire of the people will be changed only when people refuse to countenance party politicians who appeal to them for what they know to be wrong.
“Are you saying that we shouldn’t have party politics?” I asked.
“Party politics is an enemy to the people because it divides them,” he said. “Causes them to be against each other and prevents them from having a united government.”
* * *
I made a sound of quizzical amusement.
“Can’t say I see that happening,” I said. “The end of party politics? Not likely.”
He smiled. “Not for a while at any rate,” he agreed.
“You really think,” I continued, “that everyone is involved in politics only to the extent of his own personal interests?”
“Almost everyone,” he said. “Almost everyone adds to the general tendency towards corruption in public institutions.”
“Good lord,” I said. “Even I hadn’t thought it was that bad.” From being totally cynical, I felt somehow defensive now.
“Oh, it’s not that there are no men at all who would be good officials/' he said. “The problem is that the people don’t appreciate or uphold such officials. They forsake them and leave them disappointed. Force them to protect themselves by complaisance or by corruption.”
“Is it all hopeless then?” I asked. Odd how my position had been altered from outrage to appeal by the finality of his words.
He smiled at the sound in my voice and doubtless the look on my face.
“Not at all,” he said. “While it’s true that the majority of people are uninformed, their thoughts largely superficial or callous, there are, among humanity, many who have fundamental virtues; whose thoughts have made them honest, self-respecting, even self-sacrificing. Usually, such people play no public role, however, for the public wouldn’t have them. But they help to restore the balance.”
“What about the public?” I asked. “Don’t they ever change for the better?” Curious how I quickly accepted his words as truth.
“When the thoughts of the people demand a change for the better, someone usually appears to fight for it,” he said. “That someone acts because of being impelled to act and allowed to see the way to accomplish the needed purpose. These are generally unconscious agents of the people. Group-will calls for an instrument by which the people’s desires can be realized, and that instrument appears.”
* * *
“You know,” the man went on, “we must always keep one thing in mind. The present stage in social development is not more than a halfway toward civilization. It’s still theoretical and outward, not yet practical and inward. This is shown by the prisons, the law courts, the police forces in towns and cities to prevent or hold in check murder, robbery, rape and general disorder.”
I knew my smile to be grim. “Not to mention war,” I added.
“Of course,” he said. “The world’s half-formed civilization is even more glaringly demonstrated by the ways in which governments have turned invention, science and industry into the manufacture of ammunitions and machines of death for the conquest of other lands. While wars exist, the world cannot be civilized.”
“And yet what has war ever truly accomplished?” I said more than asked.
“Very little,” he responded. “History stretches from the present into the dim and forgotten past as a fading record of the achievements of the conquered and their conquerors who were, in their own turn, conquered. The law of might has been the law of life and death by which civilizations of the past have risen and fallen.”
I wondered again how he could speak of such things with such equanimity in his voice. Was he that far above it? The concept perplexed me.
“Murder and savagery have been the practice of the nations of the earth,” he continued. “The blessings and benefits of centuries of agriculture and manufacturing, of research, literature, invention, science and discovery and the accumulation of wealth is still being used by nations for the murder and destruction of each other.”
“Why?” I asked; I think I sounded almost plaintive. “Why does it go on and on?”
“Because the basic human problem goes on and on,” he replied.
“Which is what?” I asked.
“Which is: Shall reason rule the body or shall the body control reason?” he said.
“When the body is the master and reason is made to serve the base impulses of the body, then the people are in essence, brutes. Individuals war among themselves and people war against other people, morals and laws ignored or forgotten.”
“It is that bad, isn’t it?” I said disconsolately.
“It is indeed,” he said; clearly, he had not yet completed his grim assessment of mankind’s shortcomings.
“Though they are of one family, human beings have hunted each other with more ferocity and cruelty than beasts of the jungle,” he continued. “Predacious animals hunt only for food. But men hunt to rob others of their possessions and to enslave them. Human law has been made by might and the law of might has been accepted as the law of right.”
“Dear God,” I murmured. “I know it’s true but…” I couldn’t finish the remark. I sighed heavily. “Is there no answer then?” I asked.
“There is always an answer,” he replied.
* * *
“What is it then?” I asked, feeling as gloomy as I ever had in my life.
“War made by one people on another must be recognized as national murder and the people who provoke that war condemned as murderers. Grievances of any kind must be settled by negotiations or arbitrations under judges agreed upon.”
“Is there no such thing as a just war then?” I asked.
“The only just war is in defense of democracy,” he said. “A war for conquest, for business or for plunder is against democracy and should be opposed by the people.”
“Our democracy?” I asked
“Everyone’s,” he responded. “For the safety of world civilization, there should be a democracy of nations.”
“How do we manage that?” I asked.
“By example,” he answered. “The United States should be the nation among nations to establish a real democracy so that the excellence of its government will be so apparent that the other nations will adopt democracy as the best form of government.”
“What prevents that?” I asked.
“You tell me,” he said.
I had to smile, albeit gravely. “What are you, a teacher or something?” I asked.
“You might say that,” he replied. “But tell me. What do you think prevents the United States from becoming a real democracy?”
I thought about it for several moments as we walked. Finally, I suggested, “Greed?”
“That certainly is part of it,” he said. “A big part. The quest for money.”
Ah, yes, money, I thought. I was scarcely immune from that quest myself.
“The problem is,” he said, “that after money was established as the medium of exchange, people centered their interest in it instead of in the things for which it was exchanged.”
“Which did what?” I asked.
“Created money mania,” he answered.
I had to chuckle. “Money mania?”
He nodded but didn’t smile. “The race for money has made man a money maniac,” he said. “Ever before him is one leading thought represented by gain and profit. After one is infected by the contagion of money mania, he cannot analyze his condition.”
“Is it all that simple?” I asked.
“Too often it is,” he said. “Though behind the concept of business, there should be other purposes than making money.”
“Such as?” I asked.
“Character should be the true basis and strength of business,” he said. “Business can never be sound and trustworthy if it’s based only on the accumulation of money. Since business transactions depend largely on credit, that credit must depend on character, not money.
“Eventually, there should be an institution such as a Money Department in the government. With such a department, there would be confidence in business and money would be put in its proper place.
“Now, instead of understanding that it’s responsible for the strength of the government, big business strives instead to acquire special advantages from the government.”
“I’ve always thought that was monstrous,” I said.
“Of course it is,” he agreed. “It’s monstrous for big business to control government. And the cancerous disease of big business continues to spread. As it grows beyond the need of its community, it spreads to other cities and states in the nation, then to other nations until it spreads to all the nations of the world.
“Then the big business of each nation struggles with the big business of other nations. And the big business of each nation demands that its government protect its interest. There are exchanges of complaints and threats of governments and possible war.
“Ever-expanding big business is one of the major troubles of the people of the world,” he finished.
“There’s another side to this, though,” I said.
“Which is?” he asked.
“To play the devil’s advocate,” I said. “Isn’t just as much trouble caused by labor as by management?”
“Certainly capital cannot do without labor any more than labor can do without capital,” he concluded. “The problem is, of course, that the two have not yet learned to work together for their own common good.
“When capital and labor really understand the facts by putting itself in the other’s place, they won’t continue to delude themselves. Instead of being enemies, they will, from necessity, become co-workers for the common good.”
“How does money fit into all this?” I asked.
“Money cannot be considered to be capital,” he answered. “Brain and brawn and time are capital. Money is only the resultant product. A product which should be divided by capital and labor in due proportion to their vested interests.”
“Sounds like pie in the sky to me,” I said. “How can that ever come to be?”
“If the people demand it,” he said.
* * *
“The people again,” I said.
“It’s always the people,” he responded.
“When the demand of the people is strong enough, business must comply because there can be no business without the people. Business—and government, of course—are the representatives of the people. The question is, do the people really want honest government and honest business?”
“Don’t they?” I asked, surprised.
“If they do, then they themselves must be honest,” he said. “It stands to reason that, from self-interest alone, the people can have honest government and honest business only by being honest themselves.
“Then and only then will they have a real democracy.”
“You’ve used that phrase a number of times now,” I remarked. “I take it you’re implying that the United States doesn’t have a real democracy.”
“Do you think it does?” he countered.
“Well, we should,” I responded. “If we don’t have it, who on earth does?”
“Of course,” he said. “Of all the surface of the earth, the new lands of America offered the fairest opportunity for the birth of a new people in an atmosphere of freedom, under a new government.
“But this freedom was from the restraints that had been put on them in the countries from which they came. It was not freedom from their dwn greed and brutalities. People believe, you see, that they are free because they are not slaves or not imprisoned. But they are just as imprisoned by the desires of their senses.
“In addition, too many people believe that liberty gives them the right to say and do what they please regardless of the rights of others. This is simply not true. Liberty is a social state in which one respects and gives the same consideration to the rights of others as he expects for his own.”
“I have often found,” I said, “that people who insist the most vehemently on equal rights usually want more than their rights.”
“Usually,” the man agreed. “But true equality in freedom is that each person has the right to think, to feel, to do as he wills without force, pressure or restraint. One cannot usurp the rights of another without invalidating his own rights.”
“Can’t the government enforce this?” I asked.
“Not really,” he answered. “The government can make no man free, law-abiding and just any more than it can determine his destiny and give him happiness. The laws of the country guarantee a citizen liberty in his pursuit of happiness. But the laws cannot provide that happiness. Man himself must determine what his life will be.”
The man stopped abruptly and looked at me.
“Remember this,” he said. “No limits can be set to man’s rise to heights of the sublime. Yet no beast can sink to the depths of the depravities of man.
“He is kind and compassionate. He is also cruel and merciless. He is loving and considerate of others. Yet he hates and is rapacious. He’ll devote his energies to revealing the ills and troubles of others. Yet no theological devil can compare with the fiendishness of man.”
“Why does that never change?” I asked.
“Because man will not make known to himself the enigma he is,” he said. “It’s easier to pull down mountains and build up cities. These things he can see and handle. But he can’t find the way to his true self.”
“What is his true self?” I asked.
He smiled. “We’ll speak of that another time,” he said. “We’ve talked enough today.”
He startled me by walking off without another word.
I watched for several moments before calling after him.
“We haven’t introduced each other.”
“Another time,” he said.
It was the end of my first walk with the man.
Copyright © 1993 by Richard Matheson