I think to dispel the myth that I’m an anti-social grump who hates the public I should add that I am capable of my own acts of kindness. I’m a bit like Scrooge or The Grinch, with the exception that I can be kind all year round and I don’t need to be scared into being nice.
I very much believe that kindness is not hard wired into humans because of some religious text or threat of eternal damnation, but is actually an intrinsic part of our nature. Helping others helps us and being kind is actually an evolution benefit. I came to this realisation thanks to a man from the Salvation Army.
One of the big debates I have about the fact I’m an atheist and an advocate of human evolutionary biology is how does that reconcile with my belief that humans can be kind and altruistic. If we are nothing but really advanced apes how have we learnt to care for each other and commit acts that benefit others and not ourselves.
It’s not in our nature
Where is the red teeth and claws in helping someone across the road?
This is a very basic view of what a human is, it suggests that we are individuals who are competing against other human animals for food and partners. Yet we are not individuals, we are often part of families or larger community units. Just as chimpanzees form family groups to help raise the young or find food, by coming together with those who share a similar DNA structure we can advance the survival of our genetic code. Together we are stronger than we are when separate.
How though could we form strong units if we didn’t do anything to better the chances of survival of the group. If one person ate too much, or refused to let others breed, or acted in a selfish way then the cohesion of the group would fall. By sharing and caring we continue to thrive, and this sense of kindness is seen in plenty of species.
A pride of lions sharing a kill, packs of wolves working together, birds flocking to a nesting spot. Nature has decided that kindness is a natural selector.
How though would this apply to being kind to those outside the family group, surely we should attack on sight those not familiar to us. I mean how would being kind to a stranger be of benefit. Yet somehow we do this, we act charitably towards those we have never met.
I mentioned the man from the Salvation Army for this reason, it was helping this stranger that made me realise that being kind and a good Samaritan to others was as important as being kind to my family.
The elderly man in question had fallen on the side of the road and had spilt the contents of the carrier bag he was carrying. All over the side of the pavement where hundreds of pennies and other small coins that he had been collecting. To compound the situation it was also raining. He was picking himself up to start retrieving all these coins as I passed him in my nice dry car on the way to my dinner.
As I did this something in my stomach turned, how many times would I remember him? Would he be one of those memories that live with you for the rest of your life and you think about what you could have done, the fact that you saw someone in need and you didn’t do anything about it.
I turned the car around.
I pulled up on the side of the pavement, grabbed the umbrella from the back and without a word started collecting coins with the man. He must had worried that I was getting ready to drive off with my loot but I just smiled at the man in the Salvation Army uniform and carried on. It must of settled his mind as he carried on, me and him collecting pennies from the rain soaked pavement under my brolly.
When we had finished I just moved to get back in the car, and asked him if he needed a lift anywhere. He didn’t but he thanked me and did ask me one thing, “Why?”
“Because if you had been my Grandma and nobody had stopped I would have been very angry and sad”.
The thought that if one of my own relatives had been in trouble and nobody had helped was upsetting to me. This man who was a stranger could have been someone’s husband or father or granddad. How could I expect kindness for my kin without reciprocating?
Maybe this simplifies altruism to basic animalistic urges, and to an extent it does. The important aspect is that we can choose to be kind or cruel. I chose to help, I could ha e easily carried on which I was close to doing. It was my decision to turn around and help. Not a biological demand nor an edict from a deity on high. I was kind because I decided to be kind.
It is still one of the things I am most proud of, and even when I feel down avoid myself I know I still have the capacity for compassion and kindness. So do we all.