Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

A nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown

A girl pedals past a house decorated with American flags during the annual Sauganash Fourth of July Parade and Picnic, Tuesday, July 4, 2017, in the Sauganash neighborhood of Chicago. (Alyssa Pointer/Chicago Tribune via AP)
Alyssa Pointer/Chicago Tribune via AP

The stranger rang the doorbell. Five minutes later, she was sobbing in our living room.

It was a little before 7 p.m. when we heard the bell. With a glance at my wife to confirm that we weren’t expecting anyone, I went to open the front door. Standing in the entrance, a tentative smile on her face and an iPad in her hand, was a young woman wearing shorts and an olive T-shirt.

“Hi, do you have a moment? I’d like to tell you about Greenpeace,” she began.

Advertisement

We’re used to getting door-to-door solicitors. I’ve opened the front door to high-school kids selling raffle tickets, to candidates collecting nomination signatures — once, even, to someone recruiting customers for a dry-cleaning establishment. But most of the canvassers are recent college graduates requesting contributions for political advocacy groups. Our neighborhood skews heavily left of center — one house on our street has been flying a “Resist” banner for the last few months; another has a “Black Lives Matter” sign mounted on the front porch — so it’s hardly surprising that Greenpeace dispatches recruiters to such fertile ground.

Get Arguable with Jeff Jacoby in your inbox:
From the Globe's must-read columnist, an extra offering each week of opinion and ideas.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The Jacoby household, though, skews to the right, and I didn’t want my visitor to waste time on a pitch that wasn’t going to pay off. But I also didn’t want to give her the cold shoulder. Knocking on doors is stressful; even if you’re not going to donate, there’s no reason not to be courteous.

“I should tell you up front that I’m not a Greenpeace fan,” I said. “I’ll be very happy to listen, but just to be honest with you — you’re not going to make a sale at this address.”

She gave it her best shot.

“I know not everybody agrees with how Greenpeace works,” she said [I’m paraphrasing from memory], “but it’s more important than ever to protect the environment and the oceans and the forests, right? Especially now that Trump is president! By pulling the US out of the Paris climate accord, and what he’s trying to do on immigration, and giving more power to corporations — I’m sure you would agree that with Trump in power, things are moving in the wrong direction, wouldn’t you?”

Advertisement

She was speaking a little too quickly. I had the sense that she was trying to hit all her talking points before I turned her down.

“I’m not a Trump supporter,” I replied. “I didn’t vote for him; I don’t think he’s a good president. But I wouldn’t say that everything is moving in the wrong direction. Climate change doesn’t alarm me — I think it’s way overblown.”

She seemed perturbed, so I tried to reassure her.

“Don’t worry, my views aren’t typical for this street,” I said. “We’re pretty conservative in this house. We’re also pretty friendly — just not to the point of giving money to Greenpeace.” I smiled encouragingly. “I’m sure you’ll do better with some of our neighbors. Did you see the house with the ‘Resist’ banner?”

She nodded glumly. “Yes. It didn’t go well.”

Advertisement

Suddenly, to my astonishment, she was in tears.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, half-sobbing, half-panting. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I’m crying. It’s just really hard, and everything is so concerning, and — ”

“Hey, shhh, that’s OK,” I said, coaxing her into the living room. “Sit down for a few minutes. Take a deep breath; clear your head.” The tears kept coming. I hurried to the kitchen for a box of tissues. When I returned to the living room, she was still weeping.

“I don’t know why I can’t stop,” she said. “This is so unprofessional. I think I must be dehydrated.”

I brought her some cold water. My wife came to sit with us. We asked the young woman her name and introduced ourselves. As she wiped her eyes and sipped her water, she told us that she had only arrived in Boston a few days earlier and was staying at an Airbnb, having been flown in by Greenpeace from her home on the West Coast. She believes in what she is doing, but to keep her job, she has to meet a quota — so-and-so many donations per month. Door-to-door canvassing is easier with a partner, but she is alone, and so many people are unpleasant.

“I can’t believe I’m having a breakdown in your living room,” she said. “But I’m really upset about what’s happening. I worry about what’s going to happen to people I care about.” It gnaws at her to see how angry so many people are these days. She wasn’t raised to hate people whose politics were different from hers, she told us. At the same time, she’s frightened for the future — her future, and her friends’, and the planet’s.

By the time the tears subsided, it was 7:25. Normally she knocks on doors until 9 p.m. We persuaded her to take the rest of the evening off.

I gave her our number. “If you need anything while you’re in Boston, call us,” I said. “We’ll be happy to help.”

I refilled her water bottle. My wife drove her to the Greenpeace office a few miles away.

It’s an anxious time in America, unsettled and fretful. I hope our visitor got a good night’s sleep.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. You can also subscribe to his free weekly e-mail newsletter, Arguable.