Saturday, May 9, 2020

The Kindness of Strangers

I have in my possession a copy of the voluminous 'The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined' by Steven Pinker. In 776 pages, Professor Pinker argues that over the years, violence has gradually declined. In other words, the modern age is a much better time to be alive because people are less violent (and I would guess, better?) than they have been before.

This is not exactly easy to believe, since we live in a world that has vibrant media - both mainstream and social - that seem to glorify as well as normalize violence.
Catching up on news is essentially a voyeuristic experience today.

Steven Pinker does present a contradictory argument: what has changed is only our awareness and sensitivity to violence.
And as Bill Gates writes in his review of this book:

The book is about violence, but paints a remarkable picture that shows the world has evolved over time to be a far less violent place than before. It offers a really fresh perspective on how to achieve positive outcomes in the world.

Pinker presents a tremendous amount of evidence that humans have gradually become much less violent and much more humane.
Pinker isn’t saying that peace, justice and nonviolence are inevitable. He acknowledges that modern technologies have really expanded how lethal wars can be. Things can go very wrong, but Pinker is saying the arc of history is toward less violence, and we should understand that and tap into it.

* * * 

I've always maintained that this "I can't trust you since we are strangers" cliche is way overrated. Even stranger is the reasoning (see what I did there?) that we should be very wary of what is either unfamiliar or different.
We were very much discouraged from talking to strangers in childhood, and this notion that was ingrained into us continues to live on in a majority of well-meaning adults.

It is not uncommon to see us cast very presumptuous and prejudicial aspersions on the character of a person that is pretty unknown to us. And this is rife in this day and age where people make contact to other people using the ubiquitous and instantaneous digital connection methods that the web readily accords us.

Malcolm Gladwell has recently published a book that is aptly titled 'Talking to Strangers.' He talks about what we should know about the people we do not know, and proceeds to examine interactions with rather conflicting outcomes.
For one, human beings are quite trusting. This is why people submit to even damaging religious beliefs and in the same vein, unquestionably believe the media.

Humans are also pretty bad at making that initial decision on who or what to trust. This is why it is so hard to accurately judge character.

* * *

One very hot day, a guy was sitting on his porch when he saw three guys standing nearby. He walked up to them and said "Hello." He then proceeded to ask them to come in and had his wife offer them some baked goods, tantalizing veal, with milk and butter to boot.

For his generosity, his post menopausal wife become a mother.

This is the story of Abraham and Sarah as we read it in Genesis chapter 18. It is then mentioned in Hebrews 13:2

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

Strangers can be kind. And generous. Even altruistic.

And this is exactly what happened when in 1945 towards the end of World War II, a young Jewish boy was liberated by American soldiers. Strangers who were outraged by what they witnessed at Auschwitz, but who were also driven by compassion for the victims of the systemic genocide that was perpetuated by Nazis.

This young boy did live on to become an old man who finally died on 2nd July, 2016. But that was not before he bore witness not only to the horrors of the Holocaust, but also to the magnanimity of human compassion. In 1999, Elie Wiesel gave a speech where he said:

I am filled with a profound and abiding gratitude... "Gratitude" is a word that I cherish. Gratitude is what defines the humanity of the human being.

There are additional links and excerpts on this past post about the perils of indifference on The Walkabout.

* * *

What do you do when you encounter strangers? The acceptable and seemingly smart thing would be to run away, especially if it's strangers in the night. But who knows, things might be quite different and in the likelihood this is a beautiful stranger, the person turns out to be good for you.
Anyways here is some Frank Sinatra magic!


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