World of difference: Rediscovering goodness far from home

by Christina Bartson / Beacon Staff • December 3, 2014

WELL, Netherlands — A few weekends ago, I traveled alone to Bruges, Belgium for the first time. I was standing on a train platform in the Netherlands, waiting for my connection, when an announcement in Dutch crackled across the overhead speaker. People on the platform snatched their luggage and urgently started down the stairs. Noticing their scramble, I walked to check the train schedules again. I triple checked the screens, furrowing my brow: The train was still set to arrive in a few minutes.

A young Dutch woman, probably around my age, approached me and asked where I was traveling. “Roermond,” I replied. She nodded, smiled, and translated the announcement. Apparently, the train was down. She was also going to Roermond, and we only had a few minutes to catch the last bus. She held out her hand and invited me to follow her and her mother.

If she had not approached me on the bench, I would have missed the connecting bus and probably would have been stuck on platform 1A all alone, just as it was getting dark outside. Yet, although I’m embarrassed to admit it, I initially hesitated when she held out her hand.

I’ve been conditioned to be distrusting of the world. I don’t like this, but to a certain extent it’s necessary. It’s been drilled into me to always look over my shoulder, hold my bag tightly, walk with purpose, cross the street if I feel unsafe, be skeptical—do everything I can to prioritize my personal safety, even if that means profiling people. I’m always told to keep my guard up because strangers are looking to take advantage of me, especially as a young woman in a foreign country.

We’re taught this by our parents, grade school “stranger danger” programs, nightly crime newscasts, front pages, literature, and films. We always seem to be amplifying the evils of our world, so we’re surprised when we see good.

We’re largely driven by the concept that humans are bad to the core—we’re selfish and competitive, and virtue is no more than a thin veneer on our otherwise bad nature. This is the theory that makes me hesitate to take the outstretched hand of a stranger. But it isn’t necessarily true.

In Primates and Philosophers — which I’ve been studying this semester — Frans de Waal, who studies primate behavior, argues humankind evolved from a long line of moral animals, so a sense of morality is, for us, innate. In other words, humans are actually good at the core.

We can even find the building blocks of morality in primates, de Waal says, including altruistic behavior specifically tailored to novel situations. We have a biological tendency to first help people in our “in-groups,” like friends and family, so when someone extends a hand to a tourist like me — in some ways, the ultimate “out-group” — that’s a pretty remarkable demonstration of morality.

 On the bus to Roermond, the young Dutch woman said to me, “I saw your face and I knew the feeling.” She identified my worry because humans have “cognitive empathy,” an automatic mechanism that allows us to access the emotional state of others through neural and bodily signals — like my wild eyes and pop song-paced heartbeat.

This is just one example of how I’ve been helped while traveling. In France, my three friends and I got turned around while trying to find the best Parisian burrito. We stopped at a hotel to ask for directions, and the concierge whipped out his computer and pointed out the way. But when we headed out, we veered off path. He ran across a busy avenue, waving his arms and shouting, just to make sure we didn’t go down a seedy street.

Strangers have also pointed me in the direction of my hostel, drawn a map on a napkin, advised me on the most economical ticket to buy, carried a heavy suitcase, and lent me an umbrella. I’m overwhelmed by the goodness people have shown me, but I probably shouldn’t be. 

I’ve been working to unravel the thick web of skepticism that I learned to spin and start believing more in our intrinsic goodness. We spend too much energy on being afraid of people. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings, but there’s no need to believe every action has an ulterior motive or every pair of eyes is calculating. Thinking of the world like that is inhibiting, and not always protective. Good, moral humans are not the exception — we’re just overexposed to all the bad.