A coincidence that leaves me worried about our lives

Perhaps I shouldn’t read too much into the coincidence but I’ve had almost exactly the same experience twice in the last fortnight and I’m concerned.

The first occasion was at Waverley Station entering from Market Street. As ever the place was awash with travellers in a hurry. A young woman with a baby in a buggy stopped at the head of the stairs and sighed audibly. It’s more than 20 years since my kids were in a buggy but I knew what she was feeling: ‘How do I do this without becoming totally knackered?’

I turned to her and offered to help carry the buggy. We got it down to the platform level and she thanked me. The thanks were profuse, seriously profuse. I waved my hand: ‘No problem. Take care’. And I moved on.

I didn’t rethink the matter until yesterday. Again, it was in a station, this time Linlithgow station. I was in the queue, a busy queue, at the ticket office when a young woman, again with a buggy, leaned over and informed the ticket clerk that the lift to the platform would not open. ‘Afraid it’s not working,’ he replied. Again, the woman’s doleful look said it all.

I left the queue and offered to help get the buggy and baby to the platform. I took the front of the buggy, she took the back and 30 seconds later she and the buggy were on the platform. The coincidence, however, wasn’t that I’d twice helped a woman hoist a buggy either down or up station steps. It was the profuse nature of the thanks I received.

The task on both occasions was simple, not physically challenging and consequently on both occasions the gratitude seemed to me, initially at least, out of all proportion to the routine favour granted.
One explanation is simply that I bumped into two women prone to hyperbole and exaggeration but I do not think so. What hit me after the second experience was that on neither occasion, despite the many other passengers in the vicinity, did another soul make even a move to help. The response of these women was less about gratitude for the brief assistance I had rendered but rather an acknowledgement that such behaviour was not the norm. It did not accord with their routine experience.

I’ll return to that theme shortly but after, on the latter occasion, I had completed my supportive behaviour, I returned to the ticket queue when I experienced my one moment of frustration. Despite the fact I had left the queue to help someone in need, my queuing associates stood their ground to a person. Not one of them suggested I re-enter my original place in the queue. They all saw me leave the queue and why I did so. Several turned and saw me return but their eyes quickly refocused on the ticket clerk, on their journey and on their own concerns. A few minutes at the end of the queue gave me time to pause and consider what had happened.

I started to reflect on that experience and on the experience of a fortnight earlier. It was not merely that I was alone in offering assistance – and I am certain that the profuse thanks were a reflection of that. It was that for so many of my fellow passengers, engrossed in their mobiles or iPads or conversations with friends, focused on their own particular journey or simply not considering that it was the job of ‘someone else’ to help, the plight of a fellow traveller was not even visible.

I am not an advocate of a return to some mid 20th-century culture of male etiquette, where men automatically give up seats on public transport to women. I would have done exactly the same on both occasions had the buggy-wheeler been male.

There are, however, basic courtesies which oil the wheels of social connectedness. Offering help to someone patently in need of it is the most basic of such courtesies. Courtesy generally is a social lubricant. As a teacher I told young people that terms such as ‘Please’ and ‘Excuse me’ gave a signal to others that we respected them and that we were not putting ourselves and our interests ahead of them and theirs. Consequently it made them relate more warmly and connect more readily to us.

In our atomised, goal-focused culture, we are in danger of losing sight of the fact that it is our very inter-connectedness which makes us human. The small courtesies and kindly behaviours of daily behaviour among individuals are the essential underpinning of cooperative relationships in society at large.

That may be naïve. Perhaps Thatcher was right, not ethically right but predictively accurate: ‘…there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families’. If that is the case we should not be surprised at some of the cruel and callous behaviour which has recently been uncovered in hospitals and care settings. It is simply the extreme end of a spectrum of the relentless individualism which left countless passengers blind to the dilemmas of two women with buggies facing stairs they could not tackle alone.

 

The above articel was first published in Scottish review on 20 August 2013: http://www.scottishreview.net/AlexWood107.shtml

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