Fionnuala Boyle – Glove Makes the World Go Round
In his New Year message, the Archbishop of Canterbury urged Britons to “start healing some of the divisions that we’ve seen over recent years” by reaching out to people in their lives who they are estranged from or may disagree with on the issues of the day. “Pick one person. Pick up the phone. Send them a text”, the Archbishop said as he made a bid to help resolve the tensions and sense of disillusionment which has taken residence in the British psyche over the last three years.
The Archbishop’s message, however, does not sit that well with me. It is true that there have been various instances of unrest among the public over the last year in response to the socio-political upheaval that we have been faced with. Taking Glasgow as an example, concerns that the fallout of Brexit could lead to a spike in sectarian violence, as well as the resurgence of pro-independence rallies following the realisation that we were heading towards a re-elected Tory Government and an unequivocal Brexit, caused the stitches of old wounds to open afresh. However, despite such potential division, I do not believe that the general public has cast aside its humanity, its decency or its desire to reach out and help others. I came to this conclusion in perhaps an unusual way; through an observation that, once observed, came to mean more than what it simply appeared to be at first glance.
Over the last few months, think of how many hats, gloves or scarves you have seen strewn across pavements, roads or side streets; discarded when wrestling with the Scottish elements or simply dropped by accident. Now think of how many of those hats, gloves or scarves you have seen rescued from the ground and placed somewhere safe. Over the last few months, travelling to and from university and generally out and about in the city centre, I started to notice this more and more. Once I saw one glove, I saw another around ten minutes later. It became a recurring feature of my journey through town, and it made me think about the actions of strangers in a wider context.
A single glove no longer in a matching set. A bobble hat, now muddied and trampled on. An umbrella turned inside out having succumbed to the mercy of gusty winds. There is very little chance that these items will be returned to their owner, or that their owner will come back to claim them. Rarely would someone retrace their steps to recover a tattered brolly or a holey glove unless it is of great value or sentiment to them. But there they are, still, in their dishevelled condition, on that wall or bin or window ledge. That is because these items are a sign of human life; a sign that someone was there. Someone wore those gloves to keep their hands warm. Someone struggled with that umbrella because presumably they did not have a hood or a heavy enough jacket to keep them sufficiently sheltered from the rain. They may have abandoned it in exasperation, and so by carrying out the simple act of picking it up, folding it back into its original shape and propping it up against a wall, there is a subconscious desire to help them stay dry next time. The item perhaps means something to someone. At the very least, it belongs to someone – it is theirs, they own it – and that alone is a good enough reason to put it in a safe place where it can be retrieved if that person wishes to retrieve it.
Although seemingly insignificant, it is through such small acts of kindness that we show solidarity with one another. It is how we express empathy with others’ frustration and how we say here, let me just pick that up for you and place it on the window ledge of the kebab shop you passed on your way to work, just in case you’re passing by again on your way home. It is an act with no name attached to it. It is purely in gesture that we convey understanding.
In many ways, the responsibility or onus put on individuals to be kinder, to have more respect and to conduct ourselves with greater dignity fails to acknowledge the small acts of kindness carried out on a daily basis. I do not think it is uncommon or radical to be kind. On the contrary, I believe it is the basic standard to which we operate in society; the absolute norm. Kindness, decency and humanity is reflected on the ground every day. It is many of those in high office and those who possess power, power which is more often than not wielded from the most vulnerable of places, that abuse and discard such common courtesies for largely entitled and obnoxious behaviour (cue lanky politicians lounging across the front bench of the House of Commons).
I am aware that this may sound like a very naïve, short-sighted or simplistic take on the extremely serious and systemic problems which face our society. I am not being sickly sweet and claiming that kindness can change the world. I do not believe kindness is the outright cure to poverty, war, inequality or violence. But kindness is the start of a better society and a better understanding of those around us. What I am saying is, is that it will take a lot for goodwill to be forsaken within our communities because it is already so deeply embedded.
The Archbishop’s comments are well-intentioned. But I believe that we must protect humanity not only from those who destabilise it, but also from those who undermine it. It is right to keep a check on ourselves in terms of how we treat others, but it is those in positions of power who we should continuously question and criticise as it is they who determine and set the conditions for the sort of society we live in in the first place.
In short, we build from the ground up. What we find on that ground and what we rescue from that ground is what solidifies our humanity, with all that humanity entails.
Fionnuala Boyle, January, 2020
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