When I was a young man, I visited a small coastal town in the southern reaches of the continent of Ritus. The town was called David’s Palm. The people of this small town are largely regarded to be a simple folk, preferring to enjoy a life of simple pleasures and hard work over the buzzing energy of city life. They make their living largely off the bounty of the sea. Sailors make up the majority of their population, but one will also find a wide variety of craftsmen from boat-makers to painters.
I had just completed a month long trek through the harsh tropical jungles that cover the vast area dividing the northern and southern portions of the land. I arrived at David’s Palm to find it mostly quiet as the sun neared the horizon in the west, preparing to leave us for another night. Weary from my travels, I immediately made for the inn located in the town square. This part of the town was where the most activity would be during the day, but with the rapid approach of the moon, most people were home resting after a hard day’s work.
I approached the inn door, but before I could knock, I heard an eruption of voices across the square at the local tavern. Turning to investigate the scene, I saw the door hastily pulled open by the old barkeep and a young man, perhaps in his late twenties, being pulled from the establishment by a bull of a man who seemed to be an employee.
“Go home, James! You’ve had far too much today and you don’t know what you’re saying! Go home!” called the barkeep.
The young man, now identified as James, hurled back a mass of slurred insults that, for the sake of my readers, I shall omit here. After he was thrown from the door and it was shut firmly behind him, he got up, stumbling in his haste, and began walking back towards the door, howling in rage. Picking up a stone laying nearby, he threw it at the tavern, sending it crashing through one of the windows. Concerned for the safety of the barkeep and his patrons, I started to head across the square as he began searching for another stone to throw.
Before I could take more than a few steps, I was stopped by a voice behind me. “Oh, don’t trouble yourself, sir. James’ll be quite all right.”
I turned to find the elderly innkeeper standing on the porch behind me. “Madam, I don’t know if you witnessed that man’s actions this evening, but I assure you, he is a threat to himself and everyone around him at this moment,” I stated firmly.
“I very much doubt that, m’dear,” she smiled, nodding back towards James.
I looked just in time to see him collapse on the tavern steps, head in his hands. I grunted in dissatisfaction in part due to the elderly innkeeper having grasped the situation better than me.
“Madam, why is a malcontent such as he allowed to carry on here? Why has he not been expelled from the town?” I asked. “In the Four Cities, such behavior would not be tolerated.”
“’Cause he’s the mayor! We can’t go and kick him out every time he gets a bit carried away, can we?”
I stared back in disbelief. “All the more reason he should be removed! A man of his station should be presenting a far better example to his town than this pitiful display!”
The kind-eyed innkeeper smiled gently at my passion. “Oh ho, I’m afraid you misunderstand the situation entirely, sir,” she said, chuckling as she spoke.
I was doubtful. What could excuse such violent and disruptive behavior in a peaceful town like this?
“Let me tell you the story of Mayor James Milan,” she said, inviting me to sit on the steps with her. “When James was a boy, his father was killed by a roving bandit who had come to town to plunder all he could. The bandit got away with a precious heirloom belonging to poor James’s mother. The loss of her husband and her inheritance nearly destroyed Olivia and she lived the remainder of her life a shell of her old self. Young James, filled with the rage of youth, dedicated his life at that moment to finding the bandit who destroyed his family.
“He trained for years in fighting, tracking, and investigating until he came of age and left to seek the criminal. He sought him for three years, running down rumors and every tiny lead he could find until, at last, he found the scoundrel living in a small farmhouse. As he approached the place, he saw the man tending to a small field of crops. James drew his knife, intending to kill the man on the spot.
“At this moment, a little girl ran out of the small farmhouse to the man. James realized the bandit had a family. He hesitated. Finally, he decided to come to the door seeking shelter and food for the night and to wait for a chance to get him alone before striking him down.
“So he left his things just off the property, tore his clothes, and rolled in the dirt, trying to make himself look like a poor drifter. He pounded on the door of the small farmhouse and the bandit opened it, his little girl in his arms. James explained that he was lost and penniless and needed some help. The bandit welcomed him in immediately and offered to feed him as dinner was nearly ready.
“So James sat at their table. The bandit, he came to learn, was called Henrik, his wife was Layla, and his daughter was named Lily. Henrik and his family were very kind to James, feeding him well, giving him some pocket money, and offering to allow him to stay for a few days to gather his strength. James wavered in his resolve as he witnessed the love they shared and the generosity with which they treated him.
“But he still harbored vengeance in his heart hardened by years of hatred and loss. This man, who had destroyed his family in one night, was now allowed to prosper and have a family of his own. James could not allow this to stand. He declined their offer, feigning thanks, and asked Henrik to walk him to the end of their property.
“Upon arriving, James surprised Henrik and attacked him. James quickly gained the upper hand and finally has his knife at the throat of his quarry. Henrik was shocked and begged James to spare him, asking him why he was doing this. James revealed to him the pain Henrik had caused him and told him he had come to claim justice.
“At this, Henrik began to weep. Pleading for a moment to speak, he began to tell James about what truly happened that night. The death of James’s father was an accident and, in his fear and panic, he grabbed the precious heirloom belonging to the mother and ran. Henrik spent the next few days wracked with remorse. It was never his intention to take a life. As he went to sell the heirloom and discovered its immense value, Henrik vowed that day to abandon his life of selfishness and commit his hands to hard work. He bought a small plot of land, started a farm, married the love of his life, and now had a family.
“Henrik begged James for his life for the sake of his family. He told James he would not blame him for taking vengeance and he knew he did not deserve mercy, but he begged him nonetheless.
“It was at this moment that James knew he was at a crossroads. He could kill this man, a fitting punishment for his heinous crimes, or he could spare him and thereby spare his family the grief of his loss. As James pondered this — God knows what spirit shook him from his rage — he realized that striking down this man would, in fact, be injustice itself. Out of the tragedy of James’s family, something new and beautiful had been born. To destroy this man, who was no longer the same man as those years ago, would only add to the pain and suffering of others.
“James released him and thanked him for his kindness. Henrik expressed his deepest gratitude for his mercy and told him, should he ever need anything, to call on him.
“And so, good sir, that brings us to this day. James returned a changed man with a new sense of justice: a justice of mercy instead of a justice of vengeance. He won the town’s heart with his kind and compassionate spirit and has been the mayor unanimously since then.”
I sat and pondered this, but I was still skeptical. “I understand he has faced terrible trials, madam, but if this is who he has become, I still do not understand why he is allowed to continue.”
Again, the woman smiled knowingly. “Well, I left the most recent events out. You see, when James took over, the town was in rough shape. Our economy was weakening due to a lack of interest in our goods. James has worked tirelessly over the last several years to remedy this and we have finally begun to see results. But times are still tough and to top it off, James just lost his wife and son to a tragic boating accident. Tragedy seems to seek him out whatever he does, the poor lad.” Her voice caught and she began to wipe tears from her eyes.
At last, I began to see. This remarkable man, who had turned his greatest tragedy into his greatest strength and who had given so much in service to this town, was once again swallowed by unfathomable pain. I understood now why David’s Palm put up with their mayor’s surly behavior. When a dear friend is in pain, that is least of all the time to cast him out and the time when he needs an extended hand the most.
It was about this time that a man dressed in a sailor’s garb approached the inebriated James as he still sat, swaying on the steps.
“Ah,” the innkeeper said. “Here comes Philip. He’ll set James straight.”
The innkeeper then explained to me that Philip was the head of the local fishing guild and had become James’s closest friend and mentor as he sought to cure the town of its financial woes. I watched as Philip sat by James for some time, unspeaking. Then, he finally turned to his friend and softly said a few words. James began to weep, his pain uninhibited by his drunken state. At this, Philip hoisted James with one arm over his shoulder and helped him walk home.
As I lay in the inn that night, waiting for sleep to visit my travel-weary body, I reflected on what I had seen that day. It occurred to me that I very often, in my day-to-day life, witnessed similar events: a beggar panhandling in the streets, a woman berating her child over the tiniest offense, or a drunk seeking a fight. Without a second thought, I convince myself that I know who they are, what they are, and what they deserve.
But the truth, as I have by now often found, is far more complex than that. To judge any man by one moment is to reduce him to something less than human. I can so easily cut every narrative out of a person’s life and claim that she is defined by her lowest moment. I cut out every love, every loss, every triumph, every kindness, and every rainy day because of one injustice.
James could have chosen to restrict Henrik to his worst moment, but he chose to see him for the more, for the whole. The town of David’s Palm could have shunned James as his world collapsed, but they chose to remember that he was more.
Perhaps, in fact, certainly there are some who have crossed too many lines and caused too much injustice to balance out their own pain, but for many of the people I encounter in my travels, this is not so. Most are more than that moment in time. We would all do well, I think, when we encounter others at their worst, to choose the justice of mercy and believe in the more.
(An excerpt from the journals of Sir Francis Davenport.)