Valencia, Spain, 3 October 2016.
An evening out having a low-quality beer in a place close to my hotel. On one side, the beach, windy and rather empty on a regular Monday evening. On the other, a short alley and at the end of it an empty esplanade with trees and benches and whatever else is necessary to make the place the buzzing place-to-be in the high season. You can almost picture families from anywhere in northern Europe, kids with ice-cream all over their brand new clothes, teenage sons and daughters hanging out comfortably out of sight for fleeting romance or a rebellious smoke. But there’s really none of that. The few bars and restaurants, some claiming to be clubs even, collect only a few customers, all in their late 30s. If you come here on a Monday evening from downtown Valencia, you do it to stretch the summer a bit. Possibly, to keep the memory of summertime partying close by. And you do it by car. You don’t walk here. A few mid-range vehicles in the esplanade, nothing fancy or reminiscent of the crowd (probably) populating the area in August.
I’m sitting at a table under the palm trees in the alley with my beer, unwinding after a full day’s travel, heat, late takeoffs, missed trains and frugal lunch, enjoying the tranquility of this run down mundanity. The image of an ordinary academic on business travel. Again, nothing fancy..no black suit or leather briefcase; just my ordinary travel backpack, a pair of jeans, a sweaty t-shirt and an overpriced 5 Euro beer on the table. At that time, I was reading up some articles I had earlier saved on my mobile. Can’t exactly recall what, but most likely something about post-Brexit Britain, or some US electoral outlook analyses even. Can’t recall. No fun readings anyway..the kind of stuff that makes you feel like the life support machines holding the whole world together will soon give their final glitch, burn the fuse and shut down forever.
That’s when he showed up. I did not see him at first, as I was intent on my (no fun) readings. I just perceived him standing there, some 4 or 5 feet away from my table. Frankly, if you ask me, he was keeping quite a respectful distance; making his presence felt but not invading my private space, keeping silent and away from that bubble I had created around myself, my table, and my beer. It (probably) took me a while to realise that he was there. A feeling that something’s amiss. Objects that are perceived now but weren’t before. When he shifted his weight from one leg to the other, I finally put that discomfort into place. One of those movements at the edge of your field of vision that make you realise that the feeling of having someone within arm-length actually is reality.
I lifted my gaze on the man in front of me. A black baseball cap, an old t-shirt pretty much like the ones I usually wear. Blue jeans with a somewhat discolored and ruined aspect and a pair of plainly battered old tennis shoes. A rather ordinary man, I’d call him. He had a vaguely hunched position about his shoulders, only so slightly curved towards the front. The position of someone who rarely takes his eyes off the ground.
Only when my gaze finally crossed his, did he speak. A couple of words hushedly uttered in a slightly rough tone, with some trace of haste in it:
“Caballero, una moneda para comer?”
(“Sir, a coin to buy some food?”)
I could not, in all honesty, have the time to reach for my backpack and rummage through the Swedish kronor in my purse in search for a handful of Euro coins. I was not given that time. Nor the choice. A voice from behind me rose abruptly, demanding in Spanish something I could not fully grasp. My best guess? What the heck was he doing there, or something along those lines. The maitre appeared from behind. Stepped in front of me, placing himself between my table and the man, blocking my sight of him. He was literally less than a foot away, his face even closer to the man’s. And he kept on talking, his voice loud and almost violent, with an edge of scorn. He didn’t want to see him there, disturbing his customers. It’s not ok, understand? He should just get out and leave from where he had come from. Or so I could pick up from the valencian Spanish. From behind the maitre, I could see the man’s head had acquired a more slanted pose. His figure was shifting weight again, from foot to foot, repeatedly. I could not see his eyes, but I’m pretty sure they went back to gazing the good old concrete. He retreated fumbling short and low-key apologies, back towards the open lot, his hands in his pockets. Was it me, or did the angle in his shoulders just get that much more obvious? The maitre turned around, apologised with a hand on my shoulder and a smile, and went back inside.
It is very easy to forget what kind of world we’re living in. We take the cultural laws of our societies as given and barely give them a second thought. What our great great grandfathers taught our great grandfathers trickles all the way down to us through our fathers and mothers’ words and actions. Those who were victors and losers when Europe fancied itself at the apex of the human food chain keep on whispering the same old wisdom in our ears, over and over again: find someone who happens to sit on a lower step than you, and bash them hard. This increases the social distance between you and the underling, establishes hierarchy and defines clear boundaries between who is worthy and who is not.
The nostalgic of the “good old days” haven’t factored in just one small detail: Hoping the world will keep on spinning at the same lazy pace it has spun up to recently is a dramatic self-delusion. Sure, it was hard to move along the social ladder back then, whether upwards or downwards. You were frozen in the same place from birth to death; the same place your father and mother occupied, and your children will occupy in turn. Most men and women were, at least. You could surely bash the underling hard enough: after all, they were unlikely to get a chance to get back at you. Equally hard for you to ever fall down on their same step and get bashed by those who once were your peers. Of course those who had always been sitting above you will keep on bashing you regardless, but that’s how things worked.
Things look different nowadays. Information and ideas travel far and fast. Words that once took months to cross the ocean do so in the blink of an eye today, reaching out to numbers in the thousands: friends, fans or business partners alike, opening up for great opportunities and threats alike. The consequences of actions and events reach out to every corner of the globe, magnified by chain reactions along the links and nodes of the tightly knit network which is our contemporary world.
It is impossible to predict what might happen, when, or where, to snap the strings keeping your livelihood together. The shock-waves of remote, local events travel to and from any corner of the world at internet speed. The fall of an autocrat in the Middle-East or North Africa might, after years even, push or allow thousands of refugees at the European borders; fear and retrenchment following suit. Ownership and responsibility are diluted over hundreds (if not thousands) of shareholders and weakened by distance and anonymity: North-American corporations can shut factories down in Germany because a British referendum might undermine their profit base (for instance, here). It takes just a combination of bad luck, poor choices and a sneeze of the global markets to leap down a whole chunk of the social ladder in no time. For many of us that would mean sitting on the few rungs still available before having to sleep on solid concrete.
We are exposed to uncertainty from the moment we come to the world, if not earlier. We are in dire need for help to outlive our first few heartbeats. It is something that to varying degrees all of us living experience at some point, and characterises us as human beings. Empathy is the ability to step in other people’s shoes. It is what allows us to suffer with others, to read their emotions and be able to tell when our friend, colleague, partner is having a bad day or a good one. It’s what allows us to say whether we’d like to live through what others are experiencing. It connects us to others and allows us to recognise our common humanity through shared experience. But what if he was “just a junkie”? Sure, could be.. or not. There are millions of more or less realistic reasons one might make up to avoid giving up a few coins. Personally, I do not take a handful of excuses (as reasonable as they might be should they turn out to be truth) questioning others’ choices and responsibilities as justification to refuse them help, solicited or not. It is itself a matter of empathy: would I want others to presume it’s my own fault? No, I don’t think I would.
Mutual help is a fundamental component of human sociality (for instance, here): help without expectation of immediate payback establishes commonality, defines group membership, and enables mutual recognition and shared experiences. To the least, it enabled the evolution of our complex societies throughout the centuries (for instance, here). As said, when the social order was cosily immobile for most, and narrowly defined by membership of small, hierarchical communities, it could make sense to marginalise those unfortunate enough to be born at the very bottom of the social ladder, and relegate them at society’s periphery if not out of its boundaries. It was virtually costless, back then, and could even help preserving the social order as a cheap way to control deviants. It makes much less sense nowadays. I often wonder how one can accept to live in a society allowing (or, more correctly, not preventing from) any of its members to having to sleep in the street. For the most selfish of reasons, if not for altruism: whether we like it or not, whether we like to admit it or not, we all have a chance (larger or smaller) to end up in that same place for reasons that are well beyond our control.
An act of kindness is doubly difficult then: in addition to giving away part of what is our own (time, money, food), it establishes a connection between us and whom we are helping. It requires us the sometimes distressful, if not painful, act of stepping in their shoes, forcing us for a moment to share their feelings and to stand on common ground. It forces us to witness the reality of a feared possibility, to acknowledge that it could be our own reality as much as it is theirs. It forces us to recognise their humanity, and therefore our common membership of a society that failed to help them.