Depending on the kindness of strangers

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“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” is the famous line from the 1940s play A Streetcar Named Desire.

It’s meant to be ironic, because the naiveté and misplaced trust in strangers by this character has caused her much harm.

Some 70 years on, maybe we think this statement not so much ironic but absurd.

Today we are taught not only to not depend on strangers, but to mistrust them, treating each new person as a threat to our safety or property instead of “a friend we haven’t met”.

free hugs
A timely reminder of the kindness of strangers. Photo: Shutterstock

But last week, I was reminded that the kindness of strangers still exists.

The first such reminder was personal.

I travelled to Melbourne to see specialist who was recommended as being an expert with allergies.

Consultation fees and treatments are usually expensive, but this doctor who was a stranger to me before this meeting waived his fee.

Maybe he realised I had incurred the cost of travel from Sydney; I don’t know.

As I reflected on his act of kindness, I realised this act would likely go unnoticed by anyone who knew him because I doubt his generosity would be something he would bring up in conversation. It was just a random act of goodness to a complete stranger with no expectation of recognition.

A few days later, I visited the coffee van run by the Capuchin Friars in Sydney. For those unfamiliar with this ministry, the Capuchin Franciscan Friars and a group of volunteers serve hot drinks and chocolates to the rough sleepers of Sydney each Friday and Saturday night.

They also provide friendship and good conversation, an aspect of the ministry which is crucially important because it ensures these men and women are treated as individual persons with a story, and not just “the homeless.”

The van’s co-ordinator, Brother John Nguyen OFM Cap, was telling me that the existing van was about to be retired.

Late last year, a “stranger” named Tony had approached the volunteers and asked if there was anything he could do to contribute to the ministry.

It turned out that Tony works for NRMA and, with its assistance and generosity, a new van was delivered to the Friars last week, along with the promise of NRMA Roadside Assistance for the next 12 months.

In a similar fashion to my doctor, NRMA did not publicise this act of generosity.

I am pretty sure this column is the first time the story of the kindness of this particular stranger will be acknowledged.

The final story of kindness from last week appeared in our newspapers with the death of Sir Nicholas Winton, who was often called the Oskar Schnidler of Britain.

Sir Nicholas was a stockbroker who travelled to Prague in 1938 to assist in welfare work for the Jewish people there. Seeing the dire situation and anticipating the impending war, he saved the lives of 669 children by finding UK foster families for them, and arranging the funds, travel documents and transportation for them to leave Czechoslovakia, at times risking his own life to do so.

Today, it is estimated that between 6000 and 15,000 people can trace their ancestry to those original 669.

However, his story was not known until 1988, when his wife asked him for an explanation of a scrapbook filled with records of children, families, payments, travel documentation and more.

Sir Nicholas said that he hadn’t kept his work secret, he had just never brought it up in conversation.

I do wonder why Sir Nicholas never mentioned his intervention in one of the greatest atrocities in recent history.

As Christians, we are taught to keep our almsgiving secret, and maybe this was the reason behind his reticence.

But I also think that he maybe thought his efforts insignificant in the ocean of suffering which occurred in those years. We know he was haunted by the memory of those he couldn’t save, and maybe the thoughts of them overshadowed any sense of achievement he felt.

On a smaller scale, maybe the perception of insignificance in comparison to the number of homeless people in our city is the reason for NRMA not publicising its generosity.

And maybe the same goes for my doctor.

I think it’s also true that we can feel like that sometimes – that our efforts are practically worthless when sized up against the great need in our city and in our world.

But that’s not the case. They do make a difference.

We may not be able to eliminate the suffering of those around us, but we can alleviate it.

Our generosity is also an act of solidarity, recognising the other as a brother or sister.

This is particularly recognisable when we are kind to strangers. Our actions also provide hope. They remind people that goodness still exists, that darkness has not won, and that there are countless opportunities to be kind.

Even if we do not see the fruits of our actions in this life, we will definitely learn of them in the next.

I hope these stories remind you, as they did me, that many acts of generosity occur each day. Even if their efforts go unnoticed and unacknowledged, people are kind anyway.

We have great reason to hope, because in 2015, when scepticism seems to be a virtue, strangers still go out of themselves towards the other.

This post first appeared on catholicweekly.com.au on 27 August, 2014.