This poem has to do with the ways that anger and resentment can end up harming us not just as individuals but as a society. Six people sit around a fire, each with a piece of wood that could keep the fire burning. However, they look across the fire at one another, and several different areas of difference bubble up between them, and so they sit and wait. The first person is a woman who looks across and sees a black man sitting across from her. The prejudice she feels keeps her from putting her wood into the fire. Then, a person sees someone not from his church across from him, and the difference in their religious beliefs keeps him from wanting to help the person across from him. The next two are a poor and a rich man. The poor man does not want to help out the “idle rich,” while the rich man is taking comfort in his saved wealth, thinking he does not need this fire. Then we see the black man, who will not use his stick to help the white people around him – out of spite. Finally, we see a materialist who only does things that will benefit him in a tangible way. Because none of these people are willing to put their log into the fire, it runs out of fuel. However, the poem does not blame the cold night for the deaths of these six people; instead, it blames the cold within. Because none of the people could overcome either their own self-interest or their lack of empathy for someone who is different, either in belief or in ethnicity, they all suffered.
This poem reminds me of a Dr. Seuss tale about the Sneetches. Some of them have stars on their stomachs and others do not; it appears to be arbitrary. The ones who do have the stars tend to lord it over those who don’t, at least until a mysterious figure comes to town, offering the chance to add a star that looks just like the real ones. Soon, the Sneetches want to get rid of their stars because anyone can have one now, and he makes more money taking stars off. This happens over and over again, as the Sneetches go through procedure after procedure, getting their stars added and taken off. When the town is finally out of money, the charlatan leaves. The lesson is that worrying about differences that are superficial can tear a society apart. The point in “The Cold Within” is the same – by focusing on what keeps us separate instead of what unites us, society can disintegrate. The old feelings of racism, class warfare, and religious intolerance go back millennia. Because we are a visual species, we tend to make judgments based on what we see, and it is easy to distrust what we do not look like. As a result, we tend to look with a suspicious eye toward people of other races. What makes this tragic, though, is that by looking at the color of other people’s skin, we do them the disservice of judging them without actually knowing them. We make assumptions based on what other people look like, what other people believe, and what other people own, and we determine that those people are not worth our own time or interest. As a result, society slowly begins to fray and weaken; when a moment of crisis comes, the frayed society will not be able to respond.