A long time into the Great Crisis, when people were fed up already and there seemed to be no end in sight, a billboard appeared on the main road into the city, with the following message in big, green, block capital letters: “Everything will be alright”.
Everyone who drove into the city, or passed in the train, could see this billboard, and for some it was a source of great solace, putting a smile on their face. For others it was something to sneer at, and their frown got deeper as they raced into town. But no-one missed it.
Soon, all of the empty billboards on all of the roads into the city (and there were many in those economically difficult times) began to display the same message, “Everything will be alright”, and when all of these were full, all of the spare outdoor advertising space in the city itself, every space you usually see ads, began to display the same message. When all of this space had been bought up, the message began to appear in newspapers, and on screens, and soon there wasn’t a person in the city that hadn’t seen it over, and over again, “Everything will be alright”.
Great debates started about the origin of the message. “It’s just some company, wait for the brand to appear behind it next”, people would say. “It’s probably some religious congregation, trying to sign us up”, others thought. Many took it at face value, didn’t care where it came from. In such horrible times they needed to hear it so much that they took it to heart, and looked out for the message everywhere they went.
Of course it became a subject of media frenzy. Talk show hosts asked politicians, stars, even the nation’s best philosophers, “Will everything really be alright?” Heated arguments were televised between those that smiled and said, yes, of course it will, and those who sneered and said, this is a gimmick, and who are you trying to kid?
Very soon, it seemed everyone had formed their own opinion or decided for themselves, whether in the end everything would be alright or not. And long after the media had got bored of it, and moved on to other things, the messages stayed up in and around the city, in newspapers and on screens, “Everything will be alright”. The people who really needed to hear it would look at the message day after day and feel gratitude, some would even weep, so desperately did they need to keep hearing this. The sneerers, meanwhile, began to feel unsure of themselves, and while pretending to ignore the messages, secretly glanced at them again and again as they passed them in the street, or flicked over them in their morning paper. They were quite unsettled by it.
Months passed and the Great Crisis continued, no end in sight. The messages not only stayed, but multiplied. Every bit of advertising space that became free displayed the same message. The media got involved again – there was little else to talk about, and this time investigative journalists doubled their efforts to find out who was behind it – the government (everyone agreed this was unlikely), big business, the Vatican? But the advertising agencies couldn’t, or wouldn’t say, and the origin continued to be a mystery.
What was certain was that a subtle change came over the city. People walked with a new lightness under foot. People smiled at each other more. The sneerers sneered less. Parents and school teachers shouted less at the kids. Everyone began to notice this and comment on it. “Is it the messages?” they asked. “I think it’s just the arrival of spring,” others replied, “that’s why everyone’s in a better mood, because the weather’s on the up”. Still, no one was sure.
One day, everyone woke up and discovered that all the signs all over the city had disappeared. They turned to their newspapers and screens, but the message appeared no more. Uncertainty invaded the city for twenty four hours, two days, three… The news picked up on it. Headlines appeared, “Will everything still be alright?” People imagined the unknown advertiser had run out of money. They felt disappointed and hurt. Even the sneerers, who had been sneering a little less these days, seemed to be a little put-out.
A week passed and no more messages appeared. All of the billboards in the streets stood empty, like a challenge, what now? What to believe? Which way are you going to go with this? Everyone was perplexed, and forced to look deeply inside themselves for an answer. I can’t tell you what they all felt, but I’m going to tell you about a conversation I overheard between a little girl and her father as they wandered through the streets.
She was about 5 or 6, and obviously very bright. She’d liked the billboards and the message very much, and since the day she’d first seen it, she’d skip along repeating it to herself over and over again, “Everything will be alright.” It made people smile when they saw her, pure childish joy coming down the street.
“Daddy,” she said, “where did the messages go? I liked them.”
“No one knows,” said her father, “they just disappeared”.
“Is everything still going to be alright?” she asked.
“I’m sure it is,” he said, “What do you think?”
She didn’t reply at once, and her father didn’t press her as she seemed to be deep in thought. They wandered into a plaza where a few people sat at a cafe terrace beneath low shade trees in front of a very old church.
“That church,” said the little girl, “is very old.”
“That’s right,” said her dad. “About 800 years I think.”
“It must have seen so many things,” said the little girl. “Like the mountains have. And the sun. They are so old they’ve seen everything… I think they laugh at us when we worry about things. They’d say, don’t worry, of course everything will be alright.”
“There’s your answer then!” said her father.
The girl wandered over to an empty advertising hoarding in the middle of the plaza.
“I’d like to paint colourful pictures of mountains and the sun and old buildings and put them up all over the city where the messages used to be,” said the girl. “Then we wouldn’t need those messages ever again, we’d just remember to look up at the sky, or at very old things, or big trees, all those things that have seen so much, and then we’d always remember that everything will be alright”.
They started walking again and turned down a side street, and every time they passed an empty billboard or advertising space she’d think of the nice picture of the sun or mountains or great trees or ancient buildings she’d put on it.
As soon as they got home, she pulled out her paints and got straight down to work. Within weeks many other children had joined her. An advertising agency offered them free outdoor space to display their pictures and help putting them up around the city. Of course, the media got hold of it, so other advertising agencies followed suit. Soon every billboard and hoarding and newspaper and screen were filled with bright, colourful children’s paintings, and by the time the Great Crisis ended, the city was full of colour and life.