You know that TV commercial in which someone does a small good deed, someone else sees it and then does one for someone else, and so on and so forth? I think it’s for a bank, but I can’t think whether it’s American or British– so if you haven’t seen it, just think feel-good music and inspiring small acts of kindness…
I think of that commercial all the time on the streets here in London– especially in the 3/4-mile walk between my flat and the Swiss Cottage tube station. Just today, on my walk home, I watched a young man catch up with an older, blind man who was about to cross the street. It’s not a major traffic street, but I’ve seen cars blast through the intersection many times, apparently oblivious to the heavy foot traffic on that stretch. I saw the young man say something, and give his arm to the blind man, and as I passed them just after the crossing, I heard him saying, “…yes, treacherous on the best of days, isn’t it?” And they went their separate ways with just another pleasant word or two. And I went on toward home, wondering a little if I would have done the same.
I’m always noticing people helping one another here. I mean, there is plenty of rude behavior, don’t get me wrong. And there are hordes of pickpockets and other people waiting to take advantage of their fellow Londoners. But there also seem to be a pretty healthy number of good samaritans about, contrary to preconceived notions about life in the big city. People routinely help elderly folks onto or off of the buses all the time. One day I saw two men– one in a suit, one a construction worker from a nearby site– attending to a lady who had fallen down on the sidewalk. One day right here at the Belsize Park tube station, I went to buy a newspaper from the stand and the lady standing there peered over her glasses and said, “Oh, how much is that? I’m just watching the stand for the man.” Just a regular passerby, helping out.
Another day I saw a young woman stop to check on an older lady slumped on a bench. The older woman was in bad shape, very tattered and dirty, possibly homeless and certainly not in good mental health (I know, I know, who am I to make that judgement? But you know what I mean…). She also appeared to be ill. The young woman stopped and spoke with her, “Are you alright?” The woman couldn’t respond intelligibly. I had just walked up to the scene and I was wondering what I could possibly do to help, when a man came out of the nearby theatre. He had called Camden Council (the city neighborhood) services for help and he said he would stay with her until they arrived. I told the young woman, as we walked away, that I admired her for stopping. She looked surprised, but smiled and said, “Well, we have to look out for each other, don’t we?”
So why is it so hard? How many times have I not acted because I wasn’t brave enough to step out of my comfort zone? It’s so easy to just keep moving, because we don’t have time to stop and get entangled in someone else’s business. It’s so easy to tell ourselves that we might offend someone by offering help. It’s so easy to believe that we might be putting ourselves in danger by helping (and I’m not saying we should ignore that possibility– but I know I have used it as a cop-out before).
I’m prone to romanticize some aspects of British character– the “keep calm and carry on” part, especially. But I see these matter-of-fact ways that they help each other and I can’t help thinking about how they weathered the war and the post-war years. I think it starts with civility, which matters not just because it upholds some sense of decorum, but also because it ensures that people do the right thing on the surface at the very least. And doing the right thing encourages others to do the right thing. If we’re mostly all doing the right thing, then it tends to get down beneath the surface matters. Not everybody, and not all the time. But it seems like weeding out the nastiness near the surface allows more genuine kindness to take root and blossom.
So, bravo, you Brits. (Of course, you’re not the only ones who get this principle– says the American from the Midwest). But I just had to give a shout out for all the kindness I’ve been spotting. Cue the feel-good music, and roll tape of all the inspiring acts.
Wait a minute… they’re not filming a commercial in my neighborhood, are they?