Crossing Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi I encountered a great deal of trouble. Sometimes it was nature (heatstroke, exhaustion, headwinds) and other times it was the work of my fellow human beings. Always, my own stubbornness in pursuing the Adventure played a part. The suffering would have ended if I had just gone home. Unlike many wanderers, I had a choice.
But had I quit, I also would not have seen so clearly just what humanity is made of. I don’t mean the humanity we’re proud of, the humanity we show friends and loved ones and coworkers and, sometimes, the cause du jour. I mean the humanity we like to forget: the humanity we show strangers.
It’s not that we’re bad to strangers. Not always. But there is a deep, deep divide in the hearts of men over what a stranger is and how we should treat him.
About half of us look at a stranger as someone we’re not sure about, but who is basically friendly unless proven otherwise.
The other half of us view strangers as inherently untrustworthy, as guilty until proven innocent. This is the attitude that prisoners take toward other prisoners, that tramps take toward fellow tramps, that gang members take toward outsiders. And yet it’s also the attitude that many normal, friendly, law abiding citizens take toward anyone they haven’t been introduced to, especially when that person is in their town, on their sidewalk, or approaching them with a friendly wave.
I’m convinced that this particular trait is more than just potentially gruff or off-putting: it’s dangerous. This is the attitude that allows us to treat a stranger as an invader and shoot them or drive them away before we ask any questions.
But even though I was astonished just how many people have this default attitude, I also learned on my trip that humans are essentially good at heart. We are not a sinful species, and for all our wars and crimes we are, in our genes, basically nurturing. We evolved to be social and social is what we are. Whenever we start to see the person next to us as the same as us we begin to care about them. What convinced me of this was not all the spontaneous generosity on my journey, but all the non-spontaneous generosity, the people who were cold at first but then warmed up, the turnarounds.
The truth is that most of us withhold kindness not because we’re selfish but because we’re absorbed in our own worlds. We don’t see the person suffering next to us. Or we see them, but can’t imagine how we could help.
On the road I saw that a small act of kindness has a much bigger impact for the recipient than it does for the person doing it. You may think that you’re doing something inconsequential, but that smile/helpful attitude/dollar bill can completely make someone’s day. And, conversely, there’s the awful truth: you may think the favor they’re asking isn’t worth the effort, but turning them down can leave them in a miserable, even life-threatening way.
It’s that last one that sits at the heart of good and evil. Evil doesn’t come from the devil or a bad upbringing. It comes from a small amount of understandable laziness. It’s when you see the car with the flat tire and you drive right past not because you’re selfish or they scare you, but because you’re in a hurry. Because you’re not sure you know how to change a flat. Because the idea of stopping to help sounds like too much effort.
Almost always, when we turn down a chance to help another person it’s because we’re tired more than scared. We easily come up with stories to make our laziness excusable (“I’m sure they have a cell phone” “I wanted to stop but I couldn’t afford to be late” “I don’t know, they looked a little weird”). But as we weave those stories, we overestimate how much inconvenience a basic good deed would cost us, while underestimating how devastating our lack of help can be.
That’s what I’ve learned living in the wild, making my own way, being both a giver and a person in need of giving—and, all too often, being a person who wouldn’t give.
Ultimately, good isn’t about love or enlightenment. You don’t have to love people you don’t know, you don’t have to forgive those who wrong you, you don’t have to overcome craving and attachment. That stuff might help make you saintly but we don’t need a lot of saints. We just need people who are basically good, who improve the world around them a little bit at a time. And from what I’ve seen on the road, that comes from being giving.
It’s just paying attention to what other people need and going 10% out of your way to help them.
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Readers have called Lúnasa Days “like Paulo Coelho only darker.”
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