As I was writing this essay, I got a call from a blind man named Henry. He needed help finding the front door of his apartment, and then help making his way through the somewhat maze-like halls of his building, around several corners, through several sets of doors, down a ramp, and into the lobby where the stairs were.
He walked holding his phone, and I guided him based on what I could see on the live video. At one point, it was too dark for me to see where he was going, so with his permission, I tapped my screen to remotely turn on his phone’s flashlight, lighting his way. When he got to the lobby, he thanked me, we wished each other a good day, and we hung up. Simple as that.
The call came through an app called ‘Be My Eyes’, and it works wonderfully well. It connects blind and visually impaired people with randomly-chosen volunteers who can help them out in various ways. At last count, there are 431,970 blind people using the service, and nearly six million volunteers. Someone always answers.
If you want evidence that the world is getting meaner, you don’t have to look far. I won’t even supply examples, because I’m sure several sprang to mind. Entire careers and industries are dedicated to keeping supplies of human cruelty fresh and constant, and to making sure we all think about it all the time.
But there is also evidence that the world is getting kinder. The ‘Be My Eyes’ app is just one. Despite how it may feel some days, we’re not all engaged in some inexorable downward slide into Gehenna. There are countless happy warriors everywhere, waging tiny battles to retain their humanity day by day, and to find ways to be kind to each other.
Here are some I’ve noticed recently, when I decided to look:
Many libraries no longer charge late fees. I’m sure they were partially forced into this decision, because people were simply not returning books, and then never going to the library again; but the general impulse — “all is forgiven, just return to me” — is a wonderful one, very much in keeping with the Gospel. Good stuff.
Several video games now have what could be called “little buddy mode” — a setting or character designed for a younger, less competent companion player who tags along with a more skilled gamer. They can feel like they’re part of the action, but they aren’t at risk (or else they can regenerate endlessly), so it’s harmless fun for them to join in. (Super Mario’s Nabbit, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Yarn Yoshi, and Mario 3D World are some examples of some variety of this feature.)
To be sure, this isn’t altruism. It’s a product made because the company thought it could sell something. But it’s a beguiling idea, and caters to a wholesome and friendly consumer need, rather than a cruel and low one, which is something you don’t see very often.
More and more parking lots have reserved parking spots not only for disabled customers, but for pregnant women and for parents with babies. One of the greatest baby gifts someone ever gave me was a reserved parking spot in the last month of my sciatica-ridden pregnancy, saving me a short but very painful walk to and from the school door five days a week. Again, partially consumer-driven, but kind and merciful all the same for the grateful woman who really needs that spot.
The proliferation of GoFundMe’s, meal trains, money pools, Amazon wish lists for strangers, and other easily-sharable means of supporting people in need. Yes, sometimes they are foolish, and sometimes they are scams, but very often they literally save lives, and people in crisis are rescued with their dignity intact. This is something that simply didn’t exist 15 years ago, and it’s very good that we have it. It just about redeems the internet, and it’s good that people with only a little money to donate are given the chance to join in on a good deed.
‘Buy nothing’ groups have also proliferated on the internet. This is a resurrection of a practice from another age, when people would “wear it ’til you wear it out; make it do or do without.” Now, pushing back against the tsunami of discarded consumer goods, there are myriad groups where people can list what they no longer want, and I have rarely seen anything go unclaimed.
The other day someone said she had several spaghetti sauce jars without lids, and I rolled my eyes, thinking no one would want her excess recycling. Within minutes, another woman happily claimed them, saying she was selling cut flowers at the farmer’s market and needed more jars for vases.
I have also seen people request furniture, clothing, and all manner of things for their families, and someone always something to share. People want to share; it was just the mechanism for doing it easily that was lacking.
Any time we need to fix something around the house, or make a car repair, or even make a costume or a party prop, we head to YouTube, and there is almost always a useful instructive video.
Sometimes they are slick, monetized videos that someone produced as a business, but very often, they are just little movies that people have made because they know how to do something, and they would like to help other people out. There is no money or fame involved; they’re simply being helpful. This is purely lovely.
Little free libraries, and little free food pantries, and other little free structures have been erected all over the landscape, just so people can share what they have with each other. These little free-standing miniature sheds started popping up a few years ago and people have not gotten tired of them yet. It’s easy to see why.
There’s no paperwork, no income requirements, no humiliating process where you have to display your poverty before some beneficent committee. If there’s something you want, you simply take it. If you have something to give, you simply leave it. Simple and kind.
The concerns of children are taken more seriously than they were even a generation ago. Some of this is legislated, with child labor laws and efforts to abolish statute of limitation laws regarding abuse; but some of it has just made its way into the social order.
You don’t have to “but abortion” me. I know that there is immense cruelty and hardheartedness toward unborn children at the same time. That doesn’t negate the good that is happening, and it’s truly good that adults today are much more likely to listen to a child who says they are being bullied, or who says they are feeling anxious or afraid or overwhelmed, or who says something bad is happening to them.
In general, we treat children more like full humans, and this is a very good thing.
There’s a real trend away from remarking on people’s appearances. I was skeptical at first, and thought that this trend was merely lip service that people would be trained to do so as to appear correct; but my younger kids seem truly acclimated to the idea that it simply isn’t normal or acceptable to judge someone based on how they look.
It will be fascinating to see how far this trend goes, and how it affects people’s actual behavior toward each other, but even if it only reaches so far, it’s been pleasant to see that it’s no longer socially acceptable, for example, for a man to dismiss a female colleague simply because she isn’t attractive to him. Guys still behave like this, of course, but at least in many quarters, there is now always pushback. When I was growing up, no one would have batted an eye. There really is change afoot.
It’s become more and more common for businesses and schools to offer free menstrual products in their bathrooms, along with other hygienic necessities like toilet paper and soap. Since about half the population menstruates, and these products can be prohibitively expensive, it’s wonderful to see more corporations acknowledging a responsibility to provide these goods so women and girls can show up and function at full capacity.
There is more and more integration of adaptive equipment in public places for people with disabilities. More playgrounds have adaptive swings and other play structures; more churches offer sensory-friendly services and more gyms and entertainment centers offer sensory-friendly evenings; more crosswalks have auditory aids; more museums have adaptive displays for the impaired; more supermarkets have adaptive carts.
These accommodations are not only great so people with disabilities and their families can live their lives, it’s good for the rest of the world to constantly recognize that people with disabilities are fully part of the community, and that their needs are different but just as legitimate as the needs of abled people.
And there is more. I’m sure you can think of examples, if you look. These things have a way of building on each other. If you see that the world is kind and kindness seems normal, then it’s easier to start contributing yourself.
What can you add to this list?
A version of this essay was originally published in The Catholic Weekly on October 5, 2022.