Terry from Derry: Random Acts of Self-interest
by Terry Boyle
It seems an age ago, when we heard of the benefits to random acts of kindness. We can all recall a time when we witnessed acts of generosity to inspire the best in each of us. It seems such a long time ago since we celebrated the best of humankind.
The idea of good will to all people became so novel that it even caught the interest of Hollywood, who made a movie, Pay it Forward, heralding the virtue of giving. Oprah even had a show packed full of real-life stories demonstrating how unselfish we can be we.
The effect of this mantra, pay it forward, was so tangible, people began to consciously seek out opportunities to show kindness. Even the media, who usually like to cover the worst of who we are, started to cash in on the love of good news.
There was also a time when our governments cared not only for their own constituents but the whole planet. But recently this fair-minded attitude has changed.
Cultivated by the past administration, we have reversed our course, towards a greater understanding of the global community and embraced petty selfishness. For once you begin to highlight nationalism in opposition to the rest of human race, you risk dehumanizing yourself.
When you withdraw from the rich diversity of international relationships, you diminish yourself as a community. Our world, as we know, is entering a time of tremendous change. The love of convenience and capitalism has brought our planet to its knees. We have destroyed the gift we have been given through greed.
Scientists have warned us for decades and still we have refused to listen. Instead, we have ignored their warnings, preferring to believe the shallow words of politicians who care only their political careers.
Even before the pandemic hit us, there were clear warnings that were disregarded. We continued, and still continue, to believe that our collective self-destructive behaviour bears no consequences. Weather patterns have changed, sea levels have increased as glaciers have melted.
The world around us is radically and irreparably changed, and we still do not believe it. When a clownish president of the free world mocks a teenager for her concern for global warming and the destructive forces of capitalism, it shows how far we have come from validating acts of kindness. Nowadays, it has become a virtue to engage in random acts of intimidation.
Increasingly, we hear more and more stories of how behaviours we formerly found unacceptable, are normalized. An elected politician can overtly state their anti-Semitic rants, racist slurs, and question the foundation of our democracy and receive a stand ovation. Meanwhile, those who question such actions are punished.
A white teenager can kill people who are marching against racial injustice, and be allowed protections no person of colour would ever get. When it comes to the vaccine distribution, the state of Florida, as a means of encouraging tourism, offered vaccines to tourists while neglecting the needs of its own citizens.
In my own neighbourhood, a non-for-profit hospital offers vaccines to donors who pay in more than two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Fairness, it seems, has a price, and it is one most of us cannot afford.
For too long, we have heard those who flog the term ‘moral compass’ to death lack sufficient moral integrity to be taken seriously, and, yet, they are, governing us. It seems as if we have become so immune to blatant duplicity that it no longer has to be covert. Racism, greed, self-interest and moral hypocrisy have become the things we pay forward.
Now, random acts of intimidation, such as the riot on Capitol Hill, are seen as patriotic acts. Disenfranchising people of colour from educational and social opportunities is quite acceptable to those who claim to have a religious faith.
They do not see any incongruity between the beatitudes and overt racism. When it comes to the law, it is a fact that white people are treated differently. It is a fact, a horrible fact, that is reproduced in our news every day.
Attitudes such as these are not changed by reinforcing them as normal or acceptable. What we saw in those random acts of kindness was how contagious they were.
People are capable of greatness. At our best, we can transform our world and make it a better place. A pandemic has shown our vulnerability. And, since, I am what Victor Frankel calls a ‘tragic-optimist, I would like to think we can become better people through our shared suffering.
During the Northern Irish Troubles, we dreaded annual marching season. In Belfast, the Orangemen would march through Catholic areas and all hell would break out. In Derry, the mainly Catholic city would be taken over by Protestants wanting to celebrate an age-old victory over Catholics.
The twelfth of July and the twelfth of August were dates you did not forget. They were engrained into your brain, and you did not leave home for fear of running into some kind of trouble. Unfortunately for me, I had the misfortune to forget about the dreaded twelfth, when visiting a girlfriend in Belfast.
I was taking the train back to Derry when it suddenly hit me that the carriage was filling up with boisterous young men. They were drunk, noisy and worst of all, looking for an opportunity to demonstrate their hatred of Catholics.
I sat there, paralyzed, listening to ‘kick the pope’ songs. What was I thinking? How could I forget what day it was? My mind was racing. I was trapped.
To make matters worse, an older Orangeman, dressed in all his Orange regalia, sat opposite me. My eyes were fixed on the window, watching my opportunity fade away as the train lurched forward. I was well and truly done for.
The older man, who was determined to have a conversation with me, started his questioning with a nightmare of a question, ‘where are ye, going?’ If I said Derry, he would know I was a Catholic and feed me to the rabble. If I said Londonderry, he might think I was one of them but how could I keep it up for two and half hours?
If I had any wit, I would have opted for somewhere that did not have such a political landmine name attached to it. With sweat breaking out, I said Derry, and sealed my fate.
To my surprise, he instructed me to move further down into the carriage where we could get away from the mob. Nothing happened as I thought it would.
Instead of throwing me to the wolves, he protected me. I will never forget that act of kindness. Politically, we were on opposite sides, and I had always been led to believe that Orangemen were dangerously bitter.
I was saved by my perceived enemy. His actions have stayed with me, changed my narrow-view of humanity from them and us to simply us, all of us. Changed for the better by kindness, changed for the worst by self-interest.