Once there was a man who wanted to be president.
Many men have wanted to be president, so there was nothing remarkable in that. What made this man so curious was the fact that he wanted to lead people, yet he didn’t particularly like people.
That may be putting it mildly. The man hated people. He loathed them. He loved to push them around, to bash them, the denigrate them, to call them names. It was evident on his face, in the curl of his lip when he spoke of others, in the way he peered at them through narrowed eyes as if they were insects.
Despite the man’s contempt for humanity, he decided to run for office. Not just any office, but the highest office in the land.
How does a man who holds a profound distaste for people become a candidate for president? Some would say it’s more common than not. Cynics might claim it’s a requirement of democracy. But in this man’s case, he didn’t have to worry about courting pundits or wooing donors. Or even appearing to care about what other people thought of him.
You see, the man was very, very rich. A billionaire. A fact he loved to remind anyone in earshot.
He was so rich he owned huge pieces of land, vast companies, and many gigantic buildings. He boasted of these buildings, often and loudly. His skyscrapers, he bragged, were the greatest and grandest structures ever produced by human civilization. Although, to be honest, he didn’t give any credit to civilization—to the thousands of years and millions of people who paved the way, bit by bit, for the existence of such things as skyscrapers.
No, he took all the credit for himself. He claimed that he alone conjured these skyscrapers out of thin air. That his drive and ruthlessness made them happen, and nothing else. And that it was precisely this same drive and ruthlessness that would make him a great president. Not ideas. Not expertise. Not wisdom. Just his desire.
His bragging itself was a striking thing. The man had everything that anyone could ever want. Why did he feel the need to brag? What did that say about him?
It was a moot question. He left no room to ask such questions. He spoke the loudest, and he could afford the biggest megaphones money could buy. And on the campaign trail, he used them.
Through those megaphones, one proposal began to be repeated. It seemed silly at first, frivolous—perhaps even a joke. But no. It was no joke. This man, this candidate, was serious.
He’d built skyscrapers, he reminded everyone for the thousandth time, but that wasn’t all he wanted to build.
He wanted to build a wall.
The wall the candidate wanted to build was no ordinary wall. It wasn’t a wall around building, or a wall around a park, or even a wall around a city, like there used to be in Medieval times when people still thought that putting heads on spikes on those selfsame walls was a nifty decorating idea.
No, the candidate thought bigger. He wanted to build a wall that was hundreds and hundreds of miles across, that stretched across the border of his country. One that was so towering and fearsome, no one could climb it. Or if they were able to climb it, they’d never be able to climb down.
In fact, he cracked jokes about this—about the possibility that someone would have no choice but to jump off his incredibly high wall if they were ever brave enough to climb it. He laughed when he said this, imagining people falling to their deaths from a thing he had constructed.
That should have been a big clue to the voting public that the candidate, and his wall, might not be entirely good things. Instead they laughed along with him.
Why did they laugh? Some were afraid. Some were confused. Some were simply evil. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that the candidate was serious about his wall, even as he laughed delightedly about it. And when someone dared ask him how the country could possibly afford to build such a wall, he curled his lip and peered at them through narrowed eyes as if they were insects.
The man was elected president.
He built his wall.
People tried to remind him that he didn’t, in fact, build his skyscrapers alone. He’d been born with lots of money, money that someone else made and left to him. He’d been raised with the understanding that he was special, and that the world belonged to him, and that he was entitled to whatever he wanted, and that his privilege was more important than anything or anyone else. Nevermind that he didn’t actually lay a single brick. He hired people to design and build and maintain them, then people paid to rent them and keep them open. The man, in reality, was just one part of a web, a system, and that while he may have been some kind of catalyst for the buildings he claimed to have built, he never could have built them if he’d been born without all his great privileges—one of those privileges being, ironically enough, a society that encourages people like him to act as though they can accomplish everything by themselves, and that they owe others nothing.
The president’s response? “You’re the type of people my wall will keep out.” After that, no more was said.
Enormous sums of money and many people’s lives were expended in the construction of this wall. The people suffered. But they had something to focus on, an emblem of their suffering, and that seemed to help. That emblem was the wall. It was hundreds of feet high. It was plastered with advertisements as big as mountains. If you paid a great deal of money, you could take a tour along the wall and watch people fall to their deaths, just as the president had so gleefully predicted.
Eventually, though, a small, quiet voice crept into people’s heads.
The wall had been built to keep people out. All the people the president said didn’t belong there, who didn’t deserve to be there, who weren’t enough like him to enjoy the privilege of being there. But the small, quiet voice whispered into everyone’s ear, and every time they looked at the wall towering above them, they couldn’t shake it.
They had built themselves their own prison.
The president had made his dream real. It stood there, constructed of millions of metric tons of brick and steel and stone. But as his presidency progressed, a small, quiet voice of a different kind began to speak to him.
It whispered: “This isn’t enough.”
The next day he undertook a new project. No expense was spared as resources were drained from all other parts of the country—the upkeep of monuments, the monitoring of the citizenry, the antagonizing of would-be aggressors—in order to build the president’s new wall.
This one was around everyone who looked like him.
Many factors went into each citizen’s selection. Skin color. Eye color. Accent. Height. Hairstyle. Wealth. Only those who measured favorably against the metric of the president were allowed inside the new wall.
Some of those chosen didn’t want to be included inside the wall. No matter. The president made them stay there.
Soon, in this wall within a wall, this prison within a prison, the president grew content. He was, at last, finally with his own people. There weren’t many of them, but in each of those individuals he saw a little of himself. He ruled the country from within this wall, deaf to the scratches and protests of those beyond it.
One day, though, he felt something stir inside him. He’d been arguing with someone about something or other, and he realized that just because everyone around him in this new walled paradise looked like him, they didn’t necessarily think like him. He loved to argue, but only with those who didn’t remind him of himself. Didn’t he, after all, love himself above all others?
He thought he’d built a wall around all the people who he thought were smart and tough and proud enough to be in his company. But he’d been wrong. No. They’d been wrong. They’d tricked him. Fooled him. And they were everywhere now, pressed within this new wall, breathing on him and brushing up against him and daring to vent their divergent views.
Unlike his walls, this would not stand.
He built another wall. A wall around himself.
The wall was as high and impregnable as the two before it. When the last brick was cemented into place, he let loose a sigh of relief. At last. No more of the people he hated. No more of the people he loathed.
Then he realized something. For the first time in his life, he was alone.
A strange thing happened.
He had no one to argue with. No one to push around. No one to bash or denigrate or call names.
So he started doing it to himself. He pushed himself around. He bashed himself. He denigrated himself. He called himself names.
He began to hate himself.
His hands still soft from his last manicure, he began building a wall around his legs. He didn’t know how to actually build anything—he’d never actually rolled up his sleeves and gotten his hands dirty with a honest day’s work in his life—so it was a bad wall, full of holes and gaps and prone to collapse. But he kept frantically building it anyway.
Once he reached his waist, he kept going.
He built a wall up to his belly. Then his chest. Then his neck. By the time he was done, he was no longer in a prison. He was in a tomb.
It was silent again. He couldn’t bash himself or push himself around. There was no room for it, no air to spare.
The problem, he at last came to understand, was his heart.
Underneath everything, in spite of his gruff exterior, he was the most thin-skinned and sensitive person in the entire world. His heart was like an open wound, wincing at the merest hint of rebuke or scorn. He rebuked and scorned himself, in his heart, and his heart cried out at the strain.
There was only one thing left to do.
First he opened up his chest. He reached under the wall and cut the skin with his fingernails. Then he swung his ribcage open, as if they were gates, much like the gates he closed for everyone else.
Inside was his heart.
Reaching inside the pulsing muscle of his torso, he built a wall around it.
When the wall was finished, it was then, and only then, that he found peace. Not only peace, but the kind of world which would finally, truly be worthy of his presence.
It was also time for his reelection. Four years had gone by so quickly, and all the wall-building had made his life a blur. He knocked a small hole, just big enough to shout through and peer through, in the imposing edifice that was his wall.
He renewed his campaign. He shouted and sneered and cajoled, praising his walls and exalting himself. His lip curled as he spoke, and he peered at those in the outside world through narrowed eyes as if they were insects.
The problem was, no one could hear him anymore.
When Election Day came, people all over the country went to the polls. They looked at the walls, and they looked into their own hearts, and they cast their votes.
That night the results came back.
When they were tallied, it was discovered that a few people actually did vote to reelect the President Who Built a Wall Around His Heart. Millions, actually. No one was surprised at this. Voters often voted in their worst interest. Cynics might claim it’s a requirement of democracy.
In the end it was a tie between the President Who Built a Wall Around His Heart and his opponent, an otherwise bland fellow who nonetheless was competent and compassionate. The election officials counted and recounted the ballots. Days turned into weeks. Each time a recount was finished, a different result was obtained.
At last, a single result began to be repeated. After this result was reached a dozen times in a row, it was considered the final result.
The president lost.
By one vote.
As it turned out, one crucial person could not find it in his soul to cast a vote for the President Who Built a Wall Around His Heart:
The President Who Built a Wall Around His Heart himself.