Steve Nelson: Try Playing the ‘Glad Game’
It is a shame that “Pollyannish” has come to be such a pejorative.
Pollyanna is the title character in Eleanor H. Porter’s 1913 best-selling novel. The story is based in the fictional town of Beldingsville, Vt. Local historians claim that Beldingsville is based on Corinth Corner. I choose to believe that, as my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter live near Corinth Corner, and it seems just right to the story.
For those who don’t know this story, the young orphan Pollyanna had learned something she called “The Glad Game” from her father while he was still alive. One Christmas, hoping for a doll, Pollyanna found only a pair of crutches in the missionary gift barrel. Her father invented the game on the spot, encouraging her to see the crutches as a reminder of her good fortune — that she didn’t need crutches.
Pollyanna spreads her sunny optimism and eventually transforms her bleak town into a warm, loving community. A similar parable of optimism, housed in a stale joke, is of the child secretly hoping for a pony for Christmas who instead receives a box of manure. With undaunted enthusiasm she proclaims, “There must be a pony nearby!” At this holiday time our nation teeters at the precipice of the fiscal cliff, aches from the fresh wounds of Sandy Hook and too many folks still suffer from the stubborn recession and the deep chasm between rich and poor. It can feel as bleak as Beldingsville once was.
But perhaps we need Pollyanna as much as we need Santa Claus at Christmas, for despite our troubles, this great democratic experiment is alive and well.
On Tuesday, I fought back unexpected tears as I visited one of my school’s first-grade classrooms. I hadn’t prepared myself for the experience of being with 15 six- and seven-year-old boys and girls so soon after Sandy Hook. I forced a smiled, played a short game with a few kids and walked 10 blocks back to my office.
It may have been my heightened emotional state, but the miracle of New York City — of America — revealed itself with every step. This crazy city is a microcosm of the country. In just a few short blocks, the rich diversity of America played out. A Sikh cab driver chatting with an elderly woman wearing a very old fur stole. Several Orthodox Jews, improbably shopping at a Japanese sweet shop. Rich, poor, white, brown, Asian, Hispanic, East Asian, Middle Eastern, old, young, pregnant, yarmulkes, burkas, tight knit caps. All in several short blocks on the Upper Westside.
Yes, there are tensions that erupt and tragedies that defy comprehension, but the reality of America is that we live together in harmony that is unknown in much of the world. The genius of our country is that the founders provided a template that allows its citizens to absorb change without killing each other. Every day, more than 8 million diverse souls navigate the complexity of New York with civility, often generosity and occasionally real grace.
This experiment has endured and progressed for several hundred years. We overthrew oppressors. We dealt with slavery, albeit still feeling its toxic effects. America has assimilated waves of immigration, providing opportunity to people from around the globe who are attracted to our ideals, however imperfectly realized. In recent years, explicit bigotry against gay people has dissolved at an astonishing rate. It is a remarkable, singular story. Yes, there may be other countries with enviable equilibrium and greater equity, but they are much smaller, less complex, more insular and less diverse.
Many of us persistently underestimate the aggregate wisdom of our people. The Tea Party lurches us to the right and the people yank the country back to the middle. As I write, the toxic hold of the National Rifle Association and the ridiculous influence of Grover Norquist are disappearing before our eyes. For several centuries, we have absorbed everything that intolerance and inequality could throw at us, and the good, quiet people of America have brought us back to solid ground.
Any of us alive today are enjoying what is arguably the best quality of life ever experienced in human history. There is too much poverty, too much violence, and many problems to solve, but we are just plain lucky to be alive here, now. This is doubly true for those of us in the Upper Valley.
So play the Glad Game with your family, be grateful for your good fortune and be confident that there is, indeed, a pony in your future.
Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.