There is a poem called “The Cold Within” that was written in the 1960’s by then unknown American poet James Patrick Kinney.
I first heard this poem quoted by our former Public Protector Professor Thuli Madonsela, but apparently it is quite well known the world over. What struck me about it was the fact that it could so easily have been written about us here in South Africa in 2018. It is challenging, painful and beautiful and – as the various 2019 election campaigns begin to polarise and divide us – it deserves our full attention:
Six humans trapped by happenstance
In bleak and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood
Or so the story’s told.
Their dying fire in need of logs
The first man held his back
For of the faces round the fire
He noticed one was black.
The next man looking ‘cross the way
Saw one not of his church
And couldn’t bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.
The third one sat in tattered clothes.
He gave his coat a hitch.
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?
The rich man just sat back and thought
Of the wealth he had in store
And how to keep what he had earned
From the lazy shiftless poor.
The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight.
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.
The last man of this forlorn group
Did nought except for gain.
Giving only to those who gave
Was how he played the game.
Their logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from the cold without
They died from the cold within.
The poem is so powerful because it places us together around a fire – usually a space for friends. But the fire is dying and so are we. It begs for us to find our common humanity – that which will save our lives – and share what we have with one another; our kindness, our time, our resources – regardless of our differences.