Remembering an act of selfless kindness amidst memories of horror

‘Kindness,’ I wrote to a friend of mine in the UK last week, ‘is a simple human virtue and I always marvel at how some people seem able to intellectualise it away so thoroughly.’

It was a muggy May day in 2001 when my wife and I walked over the bridge on the River Kwai. Yes, that bridge.

I counted every step, because it was said that one life had been lost for every sleeper laid along that line – which the Japanese needed to run from Nong Pladuk, past Kanchanburi – where most of the original bridge still stands –  to Thanbyuzayat in Burma, where they were fighting a war against the British.

It was a sombre moment. There are cemeteries standing in the lee of the bridge, along the Kwae Yai river, the last resting places of the servicemen – British, Canadian, New Zealand and Australian – who were worked to death building this railway. Most of them are British. We found fresh flowers on one of the graves.

As we reached the other side, a tropical rainstorm erupted across us. It was typical of the season and area. For a moment we wondered about dashing for shelter under the bridge abutment – and then a young girl turned up, as if by magic, with an umbrella. She stood by us on the bridge approach until the rain had passed. ‘Here,’ my wife said, offering some cash. We were used to the peddlers in Bangkok. But the girl refused, smiled, and was gone.

An act of selfless kindness. Small, perhaps, in itself; but offered unasked – and with nothing asked in return, in that place with its memories of horror.

A lesson for us all, I think. It is easy to pay lip service to these things. And it is, I fear, one of the harsher realities of the human condition that we seem so easily able to intellectualise our way out of being kind. But it is – equally – also within our power to be genuinely nice. To help others, wanting nothing in return. As that young Thai girl did, that May day in 2001.

What do you figure? Talk to me. And share your experiences. I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


14 thoughts on “Remembering an act of selfless kindness amidst memories of horror

  1. Awesome post, Matthew. I love it when you mix history (especially WAR history!) with comments on the human condition and then illustrate it with a photo. I don’t know anyone who does it as well as you do. Totally made me stop and think. And think a little more. Thank you for that, too.

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    1. Thank you – and I very much appreciate your thoughts. To me the study of history – and of military history – is very much integral with the human condition. It’s a theme of my books. And I guess my blog reflects that approach.

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    1. Thank you (I think, when you posted, you were responding to Stuart’s comment) – WordPress seems to have its own way of ordering the comments. The experience, that day at Kanchanburi, was indeed a small act of true kindness – and I’m intrigued to see another commenter has had pretty much exactly the same thing happen, in the same place!

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  2. Something that should be continuously cultivated and sadly seen as a weakness in some cultures today. I read a short daily dharma first thing every morning to remind me of this, like feeding the cat or making a cup of tea, a necessary start to the day, before putting it into practice.

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    1. Indeed. I think it is reflective of the human condition that some societies do not see kindness as a strength; we are complex as a species. Whereas in reality kindness, being thoughtful – tolerant and caring of others – is the only way forward.

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  3. I have also walked on that bridge. I felt that atmosphere too. It is a sobering place.
    Not only that, but I too, was extended a wonderful kindness by a local who gave me a ride on a bicycle to get dinner one night. She waited for me, then gave me a ride home! I have never forgotten it, even though it was 25 years ago!

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  4. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful experience. Yes, these moments become lasting, and I wonder if it IS the horror history of the place that lends itself to these acts of kindness becoming so poignant, later?

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    1. Yes, I think you are right. And I also wonder whether the locals know why visitors come and respect them for that? Not sure, but I found the local people very friendly and helpful.

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