Have you ever competed against a brother, sister, friend, neighbor, to curry favor with somebody else? Frantically performing fruitless acts of kindness, desperately begging to be seen and chosen over another person. Using good deeds to mask your own selfishness. You may be inclined to compare the good people of Umlas to this, but I can assure you this is not the case.
The people of Umlas are good, truly good. Look! A bearded man offers his freshly baked bread to neighbors walking by. Around the corner, a brightly dressed harpist plays a jaunty tune for anyone to enjoy. A pregnant woman stands by and watches. But surely the bread man is selling for money, you insist. And the harpist must have a jar for tips. Money, money, money! You are mistaken, my friend. This may seem foreign to you, but the people of Umlas recognize that there is more to life than money. There is music, there is creativity, there is kindness, and there is joy. You don’t believe me? Let me say a little more.
Today, the people of Umlas crowd the streets for the End of Year parade. Some play instruments, some hand out food and snacks, and others cheer from their front yards and sidewalks. The parade route is lined by rows of quaint little houses, all of similar size but each one unique, and identical yards with close-cut grass that resembles that of a golf course. Without hesitation, people invite their neighbors to join them in their yard, no matter how well they know each other. In Umlas, everyone is happy to get to know someone new. Of course, in return, guests will bring floral arrangements, chocolates, or refreshments, and the host will express sincerest gratitude. The people of Umlas truly embody virtues of kindness and generosity, always looking for opportunities to help one another. And so together, with a smile on everyone’s face, on Day 1,031 of the year–ah! The look on your face. I have forgotten. Umlas does not conform to the conventional year. The number of days in a year is equivalent to the population of Umlas: 1,032. This number must be the same at the start and end of every Umlas year. It does not rise, it does not lower.
You look puzzled. Take ease, friend. Soon you will understand.
Observers with dark coats and black notebooks are situated around town to report all acts of kindness, which are later announced at the daily town meeting. Now do you believe me? Do you believe that the people of Umlas do not demand money, rather, they do good deeds for mere fame and recognition? I fear I have led you wrong, for even this is incorrect. Must you have some kind of selfish motivation to do something good? You should be ashamed.
In these daily meetings, the people of Umlas gather at Town Hall to eat, chat, and appreciate each other’s kindness. There are 1,032 seats in Town Hall, one for every member of the town. Each seat is expected to be filled at each meeting, which the people of Umlas are happy to attend. The Leader is selected from the Hat of Goodness at the start of every meeting–a different leader chosen each day, you wonder? Chaos must ensue! Do not worry, my friend. Let me explain a little further.
Where was I? Ah! The Hat of Goodness. Every time an Observer reports an act of kindness, the subject’s name is placed in the Hat of Goodness. The same name can be added to the Hat a limitless number of times, according to the number of good deeds they perform. At every town meeting, the head Observer reaches into the hat and selects a name at random to be the Leader, who aside from being honored for his goodness, must act as the town mayor until the next day’s meeting. After being selected, one’s name is removed from the Hat for the rest of the Umlas year. No citizen can be the Leader more than once a year.
You think you understand now. The good, kind, generous people of Umlas do not care about money or fame; they only act good because they want to be the leader. But I can assure you, leading Umlas is a hefty task that requires the utmost qualities of citizenship and genuine goodness. Who do you think organizes the End of Year parade? Who do you think ensures that every blade of grass on every person’s yard is cut perfectly and evenly, so that no one person is better than another? Why do you think the Leader is selected based on demonstrated kindness? To be a Leader of Umlas, one must exhibit a truly good, selfless character. The Leaders of Umlas are the ones who belong.
There is one more thing you should know. You have seen how the people of Umlas give what they have to give, and expect nothing in return. You have seen how they treat friends and strangers alike. But you have yet to see the best part, the thing that keeps the town in check, ensuring that it does not fail to maintain its perfect character: newborn babies.
1,032 people make up the town of Umlas, no more and no less. This number holds true at the start and end of every year. But when a baby is born–when a couple has a child despite knowing that their friends, neighbors, and strangers will ostracize them for at least the remainder of the year–the character of the people of Umlas is tested.
Today, the 1,031st day of the year, a baby is born. Instead of choosing a Leader on this day, the town meeting is devoted to celebrating the newborn child. The people of Umlas are generally unaffiliated with religion and faith, but this tradition of not choosing a Leader on the day of a birth is said to instill the qualities of a Leader into the newborn child: goodness, kindness, generosity. Selflessness.
All 1,033 members of Umlas attend the birth celebration at today’s meeting. Town Hall is filled with balloons, streamers, beautifully wrapped gifts. But the joy and spirit that was seen earlier at the parade is no longer present; that is, from all but two people. One is a young man with a huge smile, being sure to greet everyone who walks in the door. He frantically goes around bringing people food, pouring their drinks, helping a fallen child get up off the ground. Another is a middle-aged brunette woman who, calmer, stands by the new parents and helps them in any way they need. The new mother, filled with guilt, tries her best to make up various tasks and favors for the woman to complete. After all, the woman has one day left.
The next morning, nobody fills the streets for the second and final day of the End of Year parade, aside from the man and woman who desperately go door to door and beg for ways to help. The people’s spirit has diminished. I am afraid I have lied to you; I have one thing left to share. If someone is never chosen to be Leader for an entire year, 1,032 days, out of 1,032–now 1,033–people in the town, then they disappear from Umlas. These are the people who do not demonstrate enough goodness, kindness, generosity to be chosen. These are the people who do not truly embody the virtues of Umlas. These are the ones who don’t belong.
Nobody knows exactly what happens to them or where they go. All they know is that one day they are here, and the next they are gone. Although sad at first, the good people of Umlas recognize that this sacrifice is necessary in maintaining a population of the highest goodness, kindness, and generosity. Some people simply do not belong in Umlas.
The young man is selected Leader on the final day of the year, and the woman is never seen again. Once again, there are 1,032 people living in Umlas, no more and no less. Who knows how many will be born next year? You have thousands of good deeds ahead of you, and you’d better start now.