The other week I read a newspaper article by Euan Ferguson in which he wrote of his experience of a freak storm on a public holiday in Budapest, when flash floods overwhelmed a crowd that had taken shelter under the Elizabeth Bridge.
Ferguson wrote that most people reacted by helping each other, passing small children and the infirm to safety out of the rising floodwaters. Others, however, behaved differently; they “… pushed forward, pushed everyone out of the way; stamped and splashed and elbowed and forced their way to higher, drier ground.” Why do some people behave like this, Ferguson wondered, while others don’t? Is it down to their upbringing, he asked, or is it just the way they’re made?
We can teach our children good manners and encourage them to be considerate, of course, but what about those whose parents haven’t set a good example, yet turn out OK in spite of it? The former President of the British Humanist Association, Claire Rayner, wrote about her abusive, neglectful parents in her autobiography. She’s devoted her life to helping other people, as a nurse, as an agony aunt, and as a campaigner. Where did her altruism come from? I think Claire has said that it’s a natural human quality. I remember her talking about people who only do the right thing because they’re told to, either by their parents or some authority figure, or their God. That’s not altruism, of course. That’s what some people do for fear of punishment for not doing it.
But if altruism is a natural human quality, why doesn’t everyone have it? I wonder if it isn’t simply that some people are deficient in some way – they’re born that way. It’s like those sad, self-destructive people who seem incapable of avoiding trouble in the form of drink and drugs. I’ve known some lovely people who’ve been at a loss to understand why someone they’ve loved has destroyed his or her life, despite all the support, love and care they’ve lavished on him or her. It’s as though a self-preservation gene was missing. Similarly, many people seem incapable of understanding how their selfishness affects others.
Perhaps a psychologist could explain it. The important thing, however, is to remember that there are many, many people – a majority, I’d say – who do care, and who respond positively in a crisis. After all, it’s in our own interests to do the right thing. One day, any of us might need help.