What works...

I was standing at the edge of a cliff, looking at one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen. A waterfall tumbled off the edge of a grassy meadow and splashed into a turbulent sea. In the background, a picturesque village was framed by looming mountains. Taking in this spectacular scenery, I couldn’t help but feel...irritated. 

On the other side of the guard rail was a steep, grassy slope that led to an abrupt cliff. At the very bottom of the slope, a grinning young man braced himself against the last little hummock of grass before the precipice.   

I didn’t know him, so technically, it wasn’t my problem. I thought about expressing my concern, but I was confident he or his friends would have said something along the lines of, “We’re not hurting you, so stay out of our business.” That would have been a correct statement. If he had gone over the edge, I wouldn’t have been the person dangling from a rope trying to retrieve the body. Nor would I have been in the boat trying to penetrate the surf, at significant risk, if the first method had failed.   

I’ll never go back to that place, so I don’t need to worry about a taller fence obscuring the view, placed there to keep people from being stupid, or the villagers closing the viewing platform altogether because they don’t want their kids traumatized by the bodies of strangers. Somewhere he has family who cherish him and would prefer to not have the eulogy at his funeral begin with, “Well, that was stupid.” Of course, it’s not my family, so maybe I should just keep the judgement to myself. 

Not my problem on so many levels, but still, kind of irritating to see people so unaware that a civil society is nothing more, or less, than a web of responsibilities woven in every direction. 

It happened at the end of our last day in the Faroes, after a week of beautiful sights and splendid people. The next day we were in Iceland and booked a tour that took us to Thingvellir. In case you don’t know, Thingvellir is the place where democracy as we know it started. 

The Greeks with their Assembly and the British with the Magna Carta might disagree, but I think I have a case as well. 

Iceland was settled by Vikings who were kicked out of Norway for being too unruly. 

Think about that for a moment - a whole country, established by people that the Vikings found too disagreeable. 

For about fifty years, the land was mostly lawless, except that which could be enforced with an axe or sword. In the year 930, people decided that wasn’t working, so they all met at a place called Thingvellir and talked it out. They decided which laws were needed and spoke them out loud so no one could say they hadn’t known. They met again the next year and it worked so well it’s been continued for over a thousand years. 

A significant number of the laws revolved around ways to get along with other people without killing them, because a civilized society, a real civilization, depends on caring about and getting along with other people. 

The kid on the cliff – I won’t call him a man because I have a fairly specific definition of manhood – was just showing off and had no regard for what his actions might mean for other people. We’re surrounded by that ignorance these days. Sometimes it seems like we glory in the actions of the selfish and self-centered. You can take classes and buy books to learn how to get your way and think only of yourself. Politics isn’t about getting things done, it’s about destroying the other side.   

It’s not working.   

You don’t need to walk the streets carrying a battle axe or sword ready for battle, not yet, but I believe if you ask everyone you meet whether they believe these kings and queens of selfishness and entitlement are leading us down a path we really want to follow, you’d hear a lot of negative responses. 

This isn’t complicated. We know what works and we know what doesn't. We’ve known for at least a thousand years. 

Copyright Brent Olson