Ah, the kindness of strangers! We are having a second snowstorm, too soon after last week’s blizard, so I trudged out into the whiteout to get started on the shoveling, despite my annoyingly persistent respiratory sickness. To my surprise I found that somebody had already started carving canyons out of the snow behind my car. Yesterday I had left a note with my neighbor, whom I barely know other than the occasional hello, asking whether she knew someone whom I could pay for snow removal. So it must have been her, I thought, and then I saw her coming toward me, shovel over shoulder, like a modern day knight-in-winter-gear. She’s a cheerful woman, one of my town’s many Brazilian immigrants, who lives with her husband and stepsons and dog in the house next door. I got a lovely scolding to ‘get back inside so you won’t get sicker’ and that ‘we’ll take care of it, there are four of us!’ So I thanked her profusely and went back inside.
It’s not the first time that I’ve been at the receiving end of altruistic acts from people I don’t know, or don’t know well. One of my most remarkable and humbling experiences was at a convention several years ago, when a particularly virulent stomach bug hit, laying low hordes of attendees. I was afflicted particularly badly, lying in my hotel room with high fever, far from home. My roommate, understandably concerned about her own health, moved out. I contacted one of the organizers to request some dry crackers and ginger ale, and the result was extraordinary. Not only did this woman come in with a bag of edibles, but she re-arranged my ticket, and, because the hotel didn’t want sick people staying on, took me to her house, where she took care of me as a sister would, for three days. We may be used to the tender care of a daughter when we have the flu, or the comforting touch of a mother when we fell sick as children – but a stranger who would go to such lengths is a rare phenomenon. I lay on her couch and we talked about life, the universe, and everything, while she cooked bland stuff that I could eat. She herself got a mild version of the virus later on, but not for a moment did she complain, or indicate in any other way that my presence was anything other than a delight. I will never forget her. Sickness, or the threat of sickness generally brings out the worst in non-sick strangers. But then there are people like her, to restore my faith in humanity. One day I will write a story in her honor. I’ve already started exploring the theme of the kindness of strangers in my fiction (my Project Hieroglyph story ‘Entanglement’ being the first), but so far I haven’t written anything deserving of a dedication to someone like her.
I’ve been interested in the altruistic impulse of humans and other animals for some time. Fiction and research focus a great deal on conflict, but the opposite is often ignored. I suggest that acts that connect – across individuals, races, nations, species – are at least as complex and interesting. Photographer Richard Renaldi takes pictures of strangers off the streets of New York in poses as though they were family or close friends, and finds that there is an emotional shift within the subjects as a result of the experience. A research project on falling in love seems to indicate (assuming the research is valid, and extendable to relationships beyond the romantic) that looking into each others’ eyes and sharing answers to certain questions makes a difference as to how you see a stranger. Whether these shifts are lasting or not, whether they occur across cultures and circumstances, I can’t say, although journalistic headlines tend to jump to all kinds of conclusions. And there’s no telling whether the stranger with whom you are photographed, who may feel that internal warm-fuzzy shift in the moment, isn’t a major creep the rest of the time. After all I’ve known people whom I’ve seen succumb to the altruistic impulse for strangers, who are total jerks at home. But even where it is transitory and fleeting, the altruistic impulse is surely worth exploring. Beyond these somewhat cosmetic but no less fascinating experiments are situations where people put themselves at risk for others, such as the Pakistani lawyer Jibran Nasir, who has taken on the Taliban. I’ve seen my share of sectarian violence growing up in Delhi; always, as a counter to the horrors people afflict on each other, there are shining examples of people who risk their lives or otherwise exert themselves on behalf of strangers from the other group. The descendants of Gandhi do exist, sometimes in certain moments and circumstances, and on occasion for entire lifetimes.
Altruism is not limited to humans. Research is revealing the empathetic range of other species, confirming what those who live close to animals already know. Elephants mourn death, and comfort each other. Rats will free other rats from cages, even without reward. Animals of one species are known to adopt abandoned infants of other species. My mother recalls seeing, just a few years ago, a family of feral pigs not uncommon in her suburban town outside of New Delhi. Riding on the mama pig, feeding alongside its siblings, was a baby monkey. Here is primatologist Frans de Waal in a funny, brilliant, must-see TED talk on the question of animal morality.
I will end with a quote attributed to Rilke:
Strangely, I heard a stranger say: I am with you.