A common complaint among people of older generations goes: ‘Back in our day, doors were held for strangers, you said hello when you entered a new setting, people would help one another. Is it like that now? If we dropped dead right here no one would notice!’
If we don’t count the conclusions of such complaints, which easily derail into the territory of emotional blackmail, I don’t think that there is a general worsening in terms of humanity’s trajectory. Every civilization and every era had all kinds of different people. However, if we agree with the kind of complaint mentioned above, then I think we play a direct part in the idea of disappearing humanity.
A friend of mine told me a story the other day about how he and another male friend went to a bar to celebrate his birthday. When a birthday cake arrived at the table next to them, where a group of younger girls were sitting, my friend wanted to express the lovely coincidence and told them that it was also his birthday. After being stared at as if he were a pervert and not receiving any reaction, my friend ended up doubting himself even though he had no expectations… This same friend celebrated his birthday at a bar last year, except in a city in Europe. When the foreign people at this particular bar discovered that it was his birthday they sang songs and joked together and ordered him drinks. Same situation, two different countries, two different reactions. Even I somehow expected some kind of Hollywood style how-we-met story when my friend told me about his birthday this year, saying ‘to my surprise the girl at the table next to us was also celebrating her birthday!’
I can imagine that mothers and fathers tell their young daughters to be cautious of the men they meet at bars. As they should be. But not without first remembering that all the people we hold dear were, at one point, strangers. Let’s put aside the stories of holding doors, helping others, or falling into the arms of another as we fall in love at first sight. To me it seems that succeeding to communicate with those people who approach us with a smile, even if they are strangers, is the first step in sustaining humanity.
Photograph: Paul Almasy (1960)