The Kindness of Strangers



People from all kinds of pro-life, consistent life, peace and justice groups have taken up the task of moving more people to a position of respect for life, peace, and justice.

This is good.

But we also need to remember the vast amount of kindness and respect for life that already exists in our communities.

I have become increasingly aware of this as I walk through the streets of my lovely native city, San Francisco.

Now that I am 85, and have become very obviously disabled—walking very shakily, with the support of a walker—I constantly encounter the kindness of strangers. They open heavy glass doors for me, help me up the corner curb cuts, and ask if I’m OK or need help. A typical example: I was crossing Geary Boulevard, a busy four-lane street, on my way to the post office. I had just started crossing when a tall athletic young Black man appeared at my left side, between me and the oncoming traffic. I thought to myself, “That man looks young and strong. He could walk faster than that! He doesn’t need to walk at my slow pace. I bet he’s just there to protect me from the cars.” When we got to the middle divider, I stopped to wait for a new green light. (I can’t get across Geary on just one green light.) The young man, however, walked out in the middle of the street, held both hands up high, stopped two lanes of cars, turned and said to me, “You can go ahead and cross! They HAVE to stop for YOU!” I proceeded happily across, thanked my kind helper, and went on my way, thinking about the kindness of strangers.

An attitude of kindness and respect for life is pervasive in our community and other communities, in spite of the many outrages and forces against it. A recent book on deserters from U.S. and British forces in World War Two notes that: “…another type of deserter left the armed forces out of pure disgust. [The book] Psychology for the Fighting Man acknowledged that war and killing were not normal activities for boys raised in peacetime: ‘American men have no particular love of killing. For the most part they hate killing – they think it is wrong, sinful…’ This view of life was not unique to Americans.”

A similar idea was expressed by Harry Patch in the book, The Last Fighting Tommy. This is a biography of the last British veteran of World War I to die (at age 111). He said, “I didn’t want to join up…I had no inclination to fight anybody. I mean, why should I go out and kill somebody I never knew, and for what reason?”

This attitude is a great asset in the struggle for peace, life, and justice, but it is not magic, not a guarantee of success and not a reason to relax the struggle. It is an asset to work with. It is an ethic to point to, as we work against all the violence against human life: the poverty that traps many people, including many children; the millions without health care, which has caused needless deaths and suffering; the wars; the drone attacks; the abortions; the executions.

A recent book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence Has Declined, is an account of how the killing of human beings has declined (if violent deaths are measured as a proportion of deaths among the world population) since World War II. It is important to be aware of this, not only because it is encouraging to everyone who is working for respect for life, but also because a gloomy view of the state of society is often used to support policies of injustice and violence. That gloomy view may be a result of an actual disaster, or a result of propaganda. When people are aware of progress toward peace and justice, they are encouraged to carry it on. When there is real or imagined disaster, it can be an opportunity for reversing that progress. We have seen it often. One example is the horrific predictions of coming over-population and mass starvation that have been used to recommend draconian policies of limits on children and forced abortions.

Other examples spring to mind. There is a well-funded and widespread movement that claims that American public education is in crisis. One of America’s leading historians of education, Diane Ravitch, disputes this. She presents evidence that in spite of problems, including underfunding and the need to educate many non-English speaking students, our schools are performing rather well as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. She claims that the proposed reforms are like bringing a blowtorch to put out a fire. The proposed reform measures, such as No Child Left Behind, constant testing, teaching to tests, school vouchers, charter schools, and for-profit schools do not produce the improvements they promise but the opposite.

Further cases of the use of disaster scenarios abound in Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine. One example out of many happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Residents who had lived in public housing discovered that when they tried to return to their intact and desired public housing, it was simply shut down after the hurricane and never opened again. There are many examples of this process.

So, it is important, as we work for peace, justice and life, that we are aware of the progress that has been made to reduce the killing of human beings and of the many good attitudes and values in our communities. These are our assets that help us progress. We get considerable help from the kindness of strangers.

Works Cited

1. Charles Glass, The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II (New York: Penguin Press, 2013), xix.

2. Harry Patch, with Richard van Emden, The Last Fighting Tommy (London: Bloomsbury, 2009), 59.

3. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking Press, 2011).

4. A good analysis of Ravitch’s views can be found in Glen Altschuler’s article “Against Reform,” in the San Francisco Chronicle’s book section, December 29, 2013, 14. Readers might also want to read Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (New York: Knopf, 2013).

5. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (New York: Viking Press, 2011), 4.

Photo by kirybabe, some rights reserved.

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