The kindness of strangers

When I lived in London, I soon learned to avoid people sitting in the street. I became adept at walking over figures slumped in doorways, or averting my gaze from the sad stare of a man sitting on the pavement. In the centre of that city, such people were everywhere, it seemed. Become engaged with them, and you never know what to expect. Perhaps a request for money, or the need to summon assistance for their medical problem, or dilapidated condition. You keep walking, don’t look directly into their eyes, and you get on with your own busy life, dealing with the problems that matter to you. If this seems unkind, I can offer no explanation other than that is what we did, devoid of conscience.

There are exceptions of course. An old lady, fallen over and injured, will soon attract a crowd of those offering to help; telephoning for an ambulance, or using their first-aid skills. A lost child will usually find themselves being asked if they are alright, with someone sure to help reunite them with their parents, or escort them to the safety of a passing police officer. However, an adult male sitting slumped on a bench, looking fed up or depressed, will generally be given a wide berth.

Yesterday, I was out walking with Ollie as usual, and ventured over onto Hoe Rough. After steady rain, the ground was once again muddy and wet, making walking difficult, and more tiring than usual. After I had been trudging around for over an hour, I felt that I needed to rest, so headed to the wooded dell, where I know that I can find a convenient tree branch on the ground. I was sitting there for a good ten minutes, low to the ground, hunched against the persistent drizzle. Ollie was nearby, running around and sniffing, as is his habit. I sat there, mind whirring, thinking about lots of things as I leaned forward, elbows on my knees.

I was suddenly startled by someone calling to me from the path. I looked up, and saw a man with a large Boxer dog, which he was walking on a lead. “Are you all right?” He asked again. “I saw your dog on its own, and then noticed you slumped on that tree. I thought that you might be unwell, or have injured yourself.” I assured the man that I was just resting, and thanked him for his concern. He walked off, giving me a cheery wave as he left.

That got me thinking.

Is it just different in rural Norfolk, or is he simply a better person than I am?

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34 thoughts on “The kindness of strangers

  1. “Is it just different in rural Norfolk, or is he simply a better person than I am?” Its neither. Its all down to exposure and especially with life and work experience. I think you can soon tell who is in need of help and who is not. I was sat on a bench and a fella came along looking in the bins; I don’t go out of my way to feed people and have left people to get on with it in the past but this guy looked ill and was far too thin. I broke my baguette in half and invited him to sit and eat. I’m fairly certain you’d help someone that looked liked they genuinely needed it. All down to experience Pete.

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  2. Do we become desensitized? Are we trying to protect ourselves, both physically and emotionally?

    I think we’re all basically good people.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Rachel. I think that I agree that we are all basically tuned to be good. However, familiarity breeds contempt for those we see on a daily basis, and our choices become conflicted as a consequence.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  3. Interesting question at the end. And hard to say! I can understand both points really, either walking on or seeing if someone needs help. I wouldn’t really like to judge.

    Still, interesting post Pete 🙂 xxx

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  4. City life, not you. (After all, you were in a full-time job helping people.) The anonymity works both ways. Sometimes it equals autonomy, or at least privacy. People don’t always want to be helped. Sometimes kindness is not interfering and letting be instead. X

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    1. That’s a very good point, Pippa. I once became involved in an incident on an underground train, thinking to help a young woman who was being pushed and shouted at. The man backed off, but the girl turned on me, told me to mind my own business, and to leave them alone.
      I got off at the next stop, in case things got more complicated.
      Best wishes, Pete. X

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  5. I think appearances – and what we assume from them – affect our responses to people far more that we realise. There have been some interesting social experiments done into this sort of thing. This one, for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGPjUyVtTQw The same guy puts on different clothes and gets a completely different response. There have even been cases of people walking past members of their own family dressed in this way…

    The thing about walking dogs in rural Norfolk is that it’s not something generally done in a suit, so I imagine it becomes a lot harder for people to make assumptions about dress. Similarly, it’s harder to make assumptions about people sitting around. In a city, someone who sits (or lies) on a pavement or bench for any length of time is… well… ‘not one of us’. If they were, they would have something worthwhile to do…

    Not so long ago, I went for an appointment in a new hospital. The reception area had been specifically designed for people in wheelchairs, with an area of the front desk at a lower level than ‘normal’. The person who was with me, pushed me to this area and I looked expectantly towards the receptionist, with my papers in hand.

    ‘Can I help you?’ says the receptionist – to the person who was with me.

    And this is in a hospital – where I assume people will have received training into disability awareness!

    At the other end of the scale, I have sometimes been asked if I am alright just because I have stopped the mobility scooter in order to look at the countryside or something. The scooter seems to act as a label which says, ‘this person is vulnerable and needs looking after…’

    Assumptions. We are all guilty of them. And, as like as not, we’ve all been on the receiving end of them at some time. At the end of the day, amusing though I find it, I’d rather people showed concern when I am okay than that they walked past me when I wasn’t.

    As to whether I have been willing to return the favour? No. Not always. Over the years, I have come to understand that tossing a coin to someone who is homeless is generally a very poor acknowledgement of the long and complex story that has usually led to their being there. As you rightly suggested, more involvement is often needed – at the very least, a willingness to strike up a relationship. With the best will in the world, one cannot do that with everyone. And my natural shyness and reserve has meant that I have been willing to attempt it with very few.

    Thoughtful post, Pete. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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    1. Thanks very much for your thoughts and comments, Ros. The film clip was just what I was on about, assumptions made on dress and appearance, or what people ‘expected’ to see. It seems that the same thing happens in France too. The middle section about the woman in the US hospital being left to die by staff was unforgivable.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  6. It can all depend. Somebody threatening you’ll give a wide berth, somebody injured will get a quick crowd to help, bad day you’ll stare straight ahead, a good day you’ll stop. Generally we become harder in more densely populated areas but people…can always surprise you. 🙂

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  7. Well, Pete, I was only talking about the kindness of strangers a couple of days ago with my MS nurse. I am often offered a seat on the London Underground as I walk with a stick, and the other day my core muscles suddenly gave up – a couple of youngish people rushed to my aid, again in London….

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      1. Oh, goodness, the core goes from time to time, so I rest for a while, then off I go again! I was able to see the Lee Miller Exhibition (A Woman’s War) once I had a rest, and sat down frequently once in the gallery…. Phew!

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  8. This is very interesting and goes right to the point of a story line that’s in development at this very moment. “What makes us human?”

    I too am faced with my own humanity when crossing the same paths as the homeless. I knew a lady who wanted to help a homeless man in our town. She went to the store and bought a nice blanket as this was wintertime, and brought it to the man with a bag of food. He turned her down so fast her head was swimming.

    I pondered this for a moment or two~ and wondered if a few pairs of warm socks would have been a nice gesture, instead of a blanket he had no way of keeping dry.

    I asked a gentleman who was homeless what his choice would be and the socks were the answer. I assume things at times and I’m trying to fix that trait of mine. I handed the gentleman a bag with socks and thanked him for speaking with me, he nodded and said “Very few will ask me anything…”

    But, a few months prior a homeless man was walking around the grocery parking lot looking for the carts with the money still in them.. (We have to put a Loonie ~ $1.00) into the carts of a no-frills store to use them… that sure does makes us return the carts to their designated locations. Any way I noticed folks after emptying the carts just push the cart to the homeless man and then he returns the cart and takes the coin out for himself.

    As I never carry money on me I only have the one loonie in a compartment in my car, especially for shopping day and the carts. The man approached me with his hand outstretched as if to say I’ll return the cart for you… I was less human that day… and nodded my head no … But, then I noticed the shinning golden loonie in his hand ~ offering me the dollar and he’d return the cart because that day I was limping due to a sore knee…

    Needless, to say my dear friend across the pond we all have had our lesser moments in life. I think you made up for it in the validation of your post here today…

    Take care, Laura ~

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    1. Thanks, Laura. I liked the story about the man offering to return your cart, and give you the $1. We all make so many assumptions in life, and it is nice to be given the occasional jolt to challenge our preconceptions.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  9. Recently, at the post office, I stopped to chat with a beggar sitting just outside the door. It turns out that he was a truck driver, and that begging was just his way of earning a few extra bucks. One day on the Las Vegas Strip, a veteran of the armed forces confided that his panhandling business wasn’t as lucrative as it used to be, but that he could still take home at least $50 a day. Years ago in Paris, I spoke with a beggar at the entrance to a métro station, and he declined a temporary job offer (distributing insurance company fliers) because it didn’t pay as well. I could mention dozens of similar encounters (a few outstanding ones are reserved for a book I plan to write someday). Pete, I think a good many city people are caring individuals, but they simply hesitate to open their wallet or purse because they’ve come to realize that beggars are not always on the up and up. Beggars on the Strip are beginning to catch on, though. There is a new trend now that involves honesty and/or humor: “Wife got a sex change and then ran off with my girlfriend.” “Why lie? I need beer.” And so forth and so on. Maybe this approach works?

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    1. I like their honesty, David, but it is still doubtful that I would give them anything. When I dealt with street people during my time in the Ambulance Service, I soon discovered that a large percentage of them had started out well in life, then fallen low due to divorce, job loss, or mental illness.
      There is a demand for ‘good pitches’ for begging, as I understand it, and some beggars travel a fair distance into central London, to do their daily ‘job.’
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  10. Just another of life’s imponderables? Is our exercise of compassion situational, environmental or just related to population density? After all, the more people about the more probable someone else will do something (shared responsibility means no one is responsible—for evidence of this look at legislative bodies in action/inaction). If no other people are about or expected, it puts a whole different weight on one’s shoulders. Besides, there was the potentially unattended dog which might also have needed help.

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  11. The same over here, people are more likely to stop in the country, you can forget about it in the cities. Although there was an incident that made the news, caught on CCTV. A young man walking over a bridge appears to stumble and fall, apparently drunk (not uncommon) and a passing bus stops and checks he is ok, realising that he is having some kind of seizure the bus driver called an ambulance. Apparently it’s not the first time he has been a hero as the driver also took a sick passenger to the hospital after he fell ill on route! I think people are good as a rule, they just need a chance to show it.

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  12. I think people in large cities tend to become indifferent. They see it more often and may also have been ‘taken in’ by when trying to help. I person in the countryside rarely sees a man slumped over in Hoe Rough and ventured an inquiry.

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