An elderly woman boarded the train I was riding the other day. The carriage was crowded, but someone immediately gave up his seat for her.
Random acts of kindness like this are what should happen in the world. They don’t – not nearly often enough.
A lot of the problem, I think, flows from the way we have outgrown the boundaries of what we can cope with. There is compelling evidence that we are biologically geared to groups of perhaps 150 – by no coincidence, the typical size of a kin-related hunter-gatherer group.
Outside that, it’s possible to build other associations, but the relationships will be different.
That’s especially true for societies where the scale of community has spiralled, something that began millennia ago for humanity with the advent of the first organised city-states. However, it’s gained new proportion of late on the back of the industrial revolution that began for the west in the mid-late eighteenth century.
In Britain, for example, this dislocated the rural pattern of village communities – most of them around the 150-mark, funnily enough – and sent people surging into the cities in the hope of finding work. It is no coincidence that the nineteenth century was the great ‘age of the city’ for the British.
That era – and the twentieth century that followed – was filled with the trope of urban loneliness; of soul-less communities where most inhabitants were strangers to each other.
Has the advent of the internet and the mobile revolution changed any of that?
Yes it has – in that now we can find communities (which, apparently, run to groups of about 150, funnily enough) all across the world. We can connect with them – get to know them, and socialise. All remotely by our phones.
Has that solved the social problem of city communities that have blown out far beyond the coping scale of the primary human social mechanism?
Not really. We are far too busy, it seems, with our own selves and with the contents of our cellphones.
Being nice to people isn’t hard. Often it costs nothing – a simple smile, holding a door open. Little things count as much as the big gestures. But we have to be aware it’s happening, even if we are inclined to do it…
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015