In the aftermath of the Manchester bomb atrocity there were so many stories of the kindness offered by strangers to those who were victims, or were caught up in, the attack – the guy who drove through the night, giving lifts home to those stranded; the woman who guided children to the safety of a local hotel; and all those who offered food and shelter for the night. Then there were the gatherings – in Manchester and Liverpool – which were, as one young woman expressed it on Channel 4 News, ‘more about love and not hatred.’
In this respect there was nothing unusual about Manchester. The kindness of strangers, in Tennessee Williams’ memorable phrase, is a quality we see repeatedly after such terrible events. And though the gatherings and vigils that follow might seem, especially for those with a sceptical or cynical turn of mind, predictable, they do perform a valuable service. Not only do they bring us together when we feel at our most frightened and vulnerable, they also remind us, as George Monbiot insists in his column today, that ‘human cooperation and reciprocity are so normal we scarcely seem to notice them.’ It can be easy after this kind of atrocity – one in which children and young people enjoying their first taste of freedom and independence were sought out to be deliberately blown apart – to conclude that there is no humanity, that we are an intrinsically fallen species.
But, as George Monbiot insists, we should not forget ‘the daily acts of kindness that mark our species: people helping strangers to lift their suitcases on to a train, carrying pushchairs up flights of stairs, giving way to each other in traffic and on the pavement, listening to friends, volunteering for charities, giving their money to causes from which they cannot possibly benefit.’
We might stop to notice the remarkable people who foster children or who take refugees from halfway round the world into their homes, and treat them as members of their families. But we see their tendencies as exceptional, rather than as unalloyed examples of the way that humans are naturally inclined to behave.
Because our minds are attuned to danger and difference, events like the attack on a concert in Manchester dominate perceptions of our species. We look back on the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris in January 2015 and, remembering the perpetrators, tell ourselves that there is something evil lodged in the human mind. Less salient in our memories are the 3.7 million people in France who took to the streets to march in solidarity with the victims, and the millions who did the same elsewhere in the world. These people, not the few terrorists, represent the human norm.
It would be easy to be cynical about the words of the Mancunian taxi driver who was quoted as saying: ‘We will show whoever’s done this that it doesn’t matter because Manchester – we’re glue, and we stick together when it counts.’ Or to pass off the sentiments expressed from the platform at the Albert Square vigil in Manchester, summed up by local poet Tony Walsh in his not particularly good, but brilliantly performed poem, ‘This is the Place’ with its refrain: ‘Some are born here, some drawn here, but they all call it home.’ But how else are we live together in our gloriously mixed-up cities other than by living by such values?
For the plain fact is that those who perpetrated the Manchester atrocity knew that the murder of two dozen innocents would be seen as an attack on us all, inducing us, ‘blinded by outrage, to forget our humanity and to lash out.’ This, argues George Monbiot, then cultivates a political environment in which terrorists prosper: a nation dominated by fear, a cycle of revenge, and the escalation of conflict.’
Altruism and empathy are what binds us together, and what defines us. We should let no one distract us from this central fact of our nature: neither terrorists nor those who, in response to them, demand that we slam our doors in the faces of an entire community or an entire religion.
Our humanity, in both senses of the word, is on display all over Manchester. You can see it in the queues at the blood donor centres, in the hotels and the private houses that have been thrown open to people stuck in the city after the concert, in the messages posted on social media to help people find missing members of their families, in the donations that thousands of people have made to support victims of the attack, in the taxis giving free rides to hospitals and homes.
Tennessee Williams spoke of the kindness of strangers. But it is a reciprocal thing: not just the kindness shown to us by someone who is a complete stranger, but also the kindness we show to others, perhaps especially to those who have accomplished epic journeys before settling in our home town, people who find themselves in a different land with different customs. We need to feel more often like strangers do, and offer some simple human kindness.
Naomi Shihab Nye is a Palestinian-American whose poems are filled with a humanitarian spirit. In her first collection, Different Ways to Pray (1980), she explored the differences between, and shared experiences of, cultures from California to Texas, from South America to Mexico. In one poem a child declares: ‘Grandma liked me even though my daddy was a Moslem.’ One critic observed that Nye combined an acceptance of different ‘ways to pray’ with an awareness that ‘living in the world can sometimes be difficult.’ Her poems focus on the ordinary, on connections between diverse peoples, and on the perspectives of those in other lands. In one she writes: ‘We move forward, / confident we were born into a large family, / our brothers cover the earth.’
After the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001, the lack of understanding between Americans and Arabs led her to collect poems she had written which dealt with the Middle East and her experiences as an Arab-American into one volume, Nineteen Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. One of her most celebrated poems is ‘Kindness’ which contains these lines:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
The complete poem can be read here. But, even better, watch this clip in which Nye reads the poem, prefacing it with an introduction describing how she came to write it. It’s a YouTube gem.
Long ago, another American poet, Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850 – 1919) wrote this brief untitled verse on the same theme:
So many gods, so many creeds
So many paths that wind and wind,
While just the art of being kind
Is all the sad world needs.
(Thanks, Graeme, for your kind enquiry, and for rousing me from a self-induced torpor. Everything is fine here: the six-week silence has been the result only of lost sleep, early mornings, and constant distraction from being able to think in consecutive sentences. The happy result of having acquired a new puppy, but a circumstance quite challenging when you’re edging close to your seventh decade.)