Stranger cities and acts of kindness

“A friend may be waiting behind a stranger’s face.” ― Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter.

It always amazes me when I go to London, that whilst the place is buzzing with life; as people rush from place to place; at the same time it feels strange. Remote even. Possibly even cold. These thoughts follow on from the previous post, where I talked about the “Vampire Express” and the commute into the capital.

We all know that is can be a risky business walking up to a complete stranger and saying “Hi”, especially these days, but as a socially connected species, we naturally want to ensure that we are connected in groups. I began to wonder if being connected in groups was a social thing or if there was a physical or even a psychological aspect to it?

It appears there is a natural limitation in the maximum size of the social group that we connect with.

The optimum number was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. According to Dunbar’s number, it is suggested there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.

By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain about 150 stable relationships.  

These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. So long as you remain below this 150 person level, the social connections remain strong. You know the individuals, their names, social connections and history. You can imagine that as we evolved, our “extended family” groups were probably of a similar size. When the group got too big, a sub-group would split off and a new “extended family” group would be formed.

Perhaps this is why the concept of social connectedness breaks down in the broader society today.

Why if you live in a big city like London, it feels like a “stranger city” – a phrase I coined in the mid-80’s when I left home for the first time and moved to London. At the time, I had moved to Tooting in South London and was commuting every day into the Wet End and the college I was attending.

The city felt completely alien to me. Every face I saw was blank and non-reflective. People appeared to be aggressive and very pushy. People kept their heads down and rarely looked each other in the eye. You walked a path down the road and beware if your path crossed with someone else coming the other way. If you travelled by public transport, on the London Underground tube, for example; people try to get a seat as quickly as possible and do not look at anyone. The crush on the tube as everyone tries to maintain even the tiniest fraction of personal space.

This is how it was then and to be quite honest, it has not changed in thirty years. The city is more cosmopolitan and mixed in terms of cultural diversity. There are far more people traveling to the heart of London every day now, than ever before. Every day approximately 3 million people travel into the London capital.

So how do you deal with the “stranger” element?

For me, I continue to be compassionate and kind to people. I am aware of the hustle and bustle of the city and the challenges of trying to be kind to others. I strive to be polite. To accept all as they are. I have no wish to be “like them”. To be rude, aggressive and only focused on the “me”. I have stood up and let people sit in my seat on the tube. I have helped people cross the road. I have guided people when they have asked for directions. I have even let people get on the tube ahead of me, rather than be pushy. Simple acts of kindness. Go on. Give one a try.

What have you got to loose? A few seconds, maybe. What have you got to gain? The reaction from others. A smile. Or even a thank you.

I leave you with the following quote…….

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” ― Plato


The Vampire Express and moments of happiness

“Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” Omar Khayyám, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

You are probably wondering what on earth the title of this article is all about? Perhaps something about a horror film or a book? A bad dream? Nope, not at all. It concerns one of the strangest types of travel that I experience. The rail commute into London.

Picture it if you will. Take a moment to imagine the following scenario:-

An early morning; normally around 6:30am. It is dark and possibly cold. The cars arrive at the railway station and people park up. Everyone seems to have a “spot” that they park in, normally to enable them to leave as quickly as possible at the other end of the day.

A rapid walk to the station office and a queue – the first of the day – to buy a coffee, tea and perhaps the paper. The coffee shop staff are warm and friendly and chat to each customer in turn, often, and this is important, calling them by their name. Everyone they speak to responds and smiles and there is a brief moment of friendliness.

Then a quick walk down the ramp to the station platform and a short walk along the platform, either towards the front or towards the rear of the platform, depending on personal preference. But, and this is important. The regulars, always stand in the same place. Yep. nearly exactly the same place.

Then we wait. In silence. Complete and total silence. Nobody speaks or chats.

The tannoy announces that the train is approaching on “Platform Two”. You know, if you have done the journey as many times as I have over the past few years, that the train is about a mile away, or a few minutes till it arrives. If it has been raining, people come out of the rain shelters. Umbrellas are folded away and people get ready to board the train.

The train arrives and the regulars have positioned themselves almost directly in front of a door. Sometimes, the train driver overshoots or undershoots the correct stopping point on the platform. Difficult, I know, as there are large illuminated signs to inform the driver of the correct stopping point. When this happens you can just hear the tutting from some people. Anyway…

People press the open door buttons and climb aboard. A brief scramble and everyone gets to a seat.

At this point, I’ll point out, that whilst I live on a main line railway into London, my station is far enough out, that I always get a seat. The interesting point, though, is that time after time, people choose the same seat. Rarely do they choose something different. Laptops open. Books are extracted. Tablets and iPads are turned on. Smartphones twinkle in the carriage lights. Everyone. And I mean nearly everyone, does something so that they do not have to interact, even look at the person opposite or beside them. Silence reigns.

The train leaves and picks up speed. Soon, it is slowing down and arrives at the next station. The process is repeated. And again. And again. At some point, there are no more seats and people stand. Yep. Stand all the way into London.

Some people pay over four thousand pounds [£4,000] every year to stand on a train!

Eventually, we arrive in London and there is the queue to exit the train. The rapid walk to the exit barriers. Followed by queueing to present your ticket and leave the train station. A further walk and some of us, continue by foot to our offices. Some turn right and queue to go onto the London Underground. Followed by queueing to get on the underground train. Queueing to leave the station and then the final walk to their office or place of work.   

For nearly the whole journey, there is silence. People do not talk. Hang on, though? Right at the beginning, everyone that was commuting that morning was greeted by the people in the coffee shop when they borough their morning drink. Each one by their name. Everyone who is a regular, at some point, will find out the name of the people they are traveling with.

This whole experience, I call getting onto the “Vampire Express”.

Why on earth do I call it that? Until I took up Mindfulness, I felt as though my whole soul was being sucked dry by this depressive, negative and repetitive process and atmosphere.  You might have felt it too reading it just now.

So now when I travel to London by train, how do I deal with it differently?

Moments of happiness is the key

When I go to the coffee shop in the morning I order water and always smile and chat to the staff. I choose to stand in different places on the platform. When the train arrives, I always wait for the person in front to get on. I generally say good morning to the person next to me. I do not have a fixed seat, but try to consciously be aware of where people want to sit.

When we get to a different station and the train is full, if there is someone who looks like they need a seat, I will ask them if they would like mine. The look of astonished gratitude on their faces when this happens is amazing.

I make the effort to look around the carriage and also to see what is rushing past the window. I try to practice a silent breath mindfulness practice and be present and aware. I never rush at the other end.

Does it make a difference? I think so. There are sometimes more smiles on my carriage. A nod and a hello back. Little acts of warmth and happiness. I treat the commute as a journey, rather than a means to a destination, and hence enjoy it for what it is.

I leave you with the following quote…..

“Happiness, not in another place but this place…not for another hour, but this hour.”Walt Whitman