Our initial reaction to the first global pandemic in over a century has been individualism but it’s reassuring to remember that actually, we humans are programmed for kindness, writes Suzanne Harrington.
When an interviewer asked the famous 20th century anthropologist Margaret Mead what she considered to be the first sign of human civilization, they expected her to say coins, pottery, jewellery, maybe weapons. Instead she replied it was a 15,000 year old human thigh bone with a healed fracture. This, she said, indicated civilisation.
If an animal in the wild breaks a major bone, they die — they starve, or something else eats them. For an early human to have survived a broken femur, someone else would have had to care for them long enough for the bone to set. They would have been provided with shelter, food, and water over an extended period. Someone would have had to have shown them kindness, compassion, altruism. Kindness, alongside science, remains the cornerstone of medicine:
Our initial reaction to the first global pandemic in over a century has been individualism rather than collectivism — panic buying, hoarding, profiteering — but it’s reassuring to remember as we settle into the current surreality that actually, we humans are programmed for kindness and co-operation above all else.
It’s how we have evolved — by working in co-operative groups, supporting each other. And not just in immediate family groups, but in wider communities. As the Covid-19 situation unfolds, there are daily examples, big and small, of human kindness.
The ex-Man United footballer, turned hotelier, Gary Neville is shutting his hotels and handing them over to the NHS to use for the duration, while keeping his staff on full pay.
And there’s the NFL star Russell Wilson and his partner, R&B artist Ciara, who have just pledged one million meals to their local Seattle food bank.
Nearer home, Dubliner Samantha Kelly set up #SelfIsolationHelp for Irish people stuck indoors who need practical support — already, there are almost 7,000 people onboard to help, and someone else made an online map so that those in need know where to find them.
So many people are self isolating at the moment. Many have underlying illnesses. So if that is you and you would like help with anything or you are feeling lonely please tweet to me and I will spread the word so you can connect with others in the same situation. #Selfisolation— Samantha Kelly (@Tweetinggoddess) March 10, 2020
In the UK, a Cornish woman, Becky Watt, created the hashtag #ViralKindness by designing a card which can be printed off at home, and put through neighbours’ doors:
The card offers to deliver shopping, pick up medical supplies, or just phone for a chat for those suffering from the psychological rigours of uncertainty and enforced isolation.
The idea of random acts of kindness has been with us since 1982, when a writer called Anne Herbert wrote on a placemat in a restaurant in Sausalito, California, “practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty”.
This has since come to mean spontaneous, usually anonymous small acts, such as buying a stranger a coffee, letting someone go ahead of you in a queue, leaving your parking ticket for someone else to use.
In Naples, the tradition of caffe sospeso predates the 1982 model — if you have extra cash, you buy two coffees but only drink one, so that someone else with less money can also enjoy one. Today, we call this ‘paying it forward’.
Two misconceptions about kindness are that it is a behaviour learned through social conditioning (“be nice!”), or that it involves religious piety.
Actually, it’s innate. The 15,000 year old healed femur considerably predates the Good Samaritan Christian story, or the Muslim practice of Zakat, where all Muslims donate a percentage of their income to charity. (A 2013 JustGiving poll showed how Muslims give significantly more to charity than Jews, Christians or atheists.) Sikhs are famous for feeding people in need, whether through homelessness, bush fires, or other global crises, while Hindus and Buddhists are encouraged to treat all living creatures with kindness.
It is present even in babies, as shown by experiments by psychologist Adam Philips, who detected empathy in infants, as well as in other mammals. Charles Darwin found us to be a social and caring species: “Social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of his fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.”
Berkley psychologist Dacher Keltner, in his book Born To Be Good: The Science Of A Meaningful Life, describes how humans succeed far better via altruism and co-operation than via cutthroat individualism.
We have, he told American Scientific, “remarkable tendencies toward kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the classic tasks of evolution — survival, gene replication and smooth functioning groups. These tendencies are felt in the wonderful realm of emotion — emotions such as compassion, gratitude, awe, embarrassment and mirth.”
As our world is temporarily turned on its head, the vulnerability of older people, ill people, and marginalised people has never been so starkly highlighted, and so our random acts of kindness become more coherent, more structured.
And it’s infectious. We hear of people helping others and we want to join in; kindness is literally going viral. A positive side effect of helping others is that you forget about your own situation, (which is, incidentally, the basis of 12 Step recovery); compassion cauterises discontent. Temporarily, anyway.
Even the word itself, from the Old English word ‘kyndnes’, means both ‘nation’ and to ‘produce’ or ‘increase’.
Aristotle defined kindness as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped”, while Nietzsche called it “the most curative herbs and agents of human intercourse.”
And it’s universal — Mark Twain described kindness as “a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see”. As the Covid-19 hospitals in Wuhan close, Europe still has some way to go before things head back towards normality — except it looks like there will be a new normal, with people more attuned to each other, and more co-operative.
In other words, kinder. Or as Margaret Mead put it, “Never doubt that a few caring people can’t change the world. For indeed, that’s all who we ever have.”