So I sat in Starbucks this morning after dropping my daughter off at school, catching up on grading and on email relating to the Secular Humanist Club (which had its first meeting of the semester yesterday and is doing spectacularly well, thanks for asking). Suddenly the busy drone of rush-hour New York conversation ceased altogether, dozens of people gasped, and I looked up to see that a stroller had tipped over, baby and all. In the time it took to notice and process this, forty people had rushed forward to help. The baby was fine, staring around with huge puzzled eyes at all the fuss, and everyone relaxed and drifted back to their morning routine — but the atmosphere had changed. People were smiling, positively beaming, chatting with nearby strangers about how scared they’d felt or how fortunately things had turned out. For just a couple of minutes, the crowd at Starbucks felt like a family.
Back in early 2000, when I was teaching at School for the Physical City, about sixty blocks south of here, I saw someone get struck by a car while running across the street. The sound was horrifyingly loud, and the man rolled twelve feet or so. Within seconds, a crowd had gathered around him, their winter breath steaming upward in a circle of concern. Someone whipped out a phone and called for an ambulance, someone stood directing traffic away from the area, while the car’s driver (who had simply run over with his car door open and the engine still running) and someone else knelt by the motionless man and spoke words of reassurance. The bulk of the crowd continued to stand by until the man had been loaded into an ambulance and driven away, then began to disperse. I wanted to call them all back, insist that they not let this amazing thing slip away. But the thing stayed with me, and it’s still here. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that, on that cold afternoon a dozen years ago, I became a humanist.
The next day it was my turn to lead morning meeting at SPC, and I talked with the kids about how proud I’d felt to be human when those people rushed over to help, and how important it seemed to me to recognize that we’re good, really really good sometimes, better than I’d thought for sure. And I cried. A few kids laughed, but it was kind laughter, not judgmental, and most of them nodded, smiling, and someone said, “That’s awesome.” And it was. I mean, it really was.
And twelve years later, the scared and concerned and helpful people at this coffee shop are dispersing into the day, taking whatever they will from this moment, and now other people are here, people who don’t know about what just happened, and I want to tell them. I want to say it all again.
So I’m saying it here. We’re humans, we’re fragile and frightened, and we can be heartless and selfish and cruel. But we can be absolutely wonderful, and it happens far more often than many of us recognize. And it’s worth celebrating.