This past November I ran a race in Des Moines, IA. Seven thousand runners, 6 river crossings, gravel, slippery mud trails, and 7 miles at a windchill of 12 below zero. The trails were icy underfoot and the water was frigid cold. In such circumstances one might expect each of the runners to be looking out for number one, but that race gave me reason to question those theories which give self-preservation as the chief motive of human action, or the ideas of pessimists who think people are fundamentally selfish or bad.
An example. As I came out of one of these icy creeks I was faced with a steep and muddy hill, there was a thin rope to assist runners, but the going was still treacherous. Every time I lost my footing or faltered, though, there was a steadying hand at my back or an encouraging ” You got it!”, “Your good”. These came from strangers, understand, the folks who just happened to be behind and around me on this hill. On another hill an older woman was struggling make it up, but there was no lack of runners willing to stop, take her hand, and help her get there. Again, when someone fell into one of the streams, there was someone right there to help them up and carry on.
There are some people who claim that selfishness lies at the root of our actions, that we are fundamentally corrupt beings. They say that if the artificial constructs of law and authority were taken away, we would rip each other apart in a fight for survival. In dire need and extreme circumstances, they think, we forsake others and seek only our own survival, doing things we would find unthinkable in the comfort of our living rooms.
I, for one, cannot believe them. Not entirely any way. What we actually observe in tales of humans pushed to edge is something quite different. When persons are put in survival situations, these observers think, the evolutionary drive for self preservation kicks in, and takes priority over everything. But what we actually see in so many of these instances, are great acts of sacrifice from ordinary people.
In the Everest disaster of 1997,which is the subject of John Krakauer’s famous book Into Thin Air, a group of previously unconnected individuals were put into the most threatening of circumstances. Alone on top of the world’s fiercest Mountain Range, caught in a windstorm, and running out of oxygen. We don’t see each of these characters acting for themselves, what we do see are courageous acts from people who might not at first seem courageous. We see people ready to endanger their own survival on what seem like hopeless searches for their fellow climbers buried under the ice, we see people willing to run down their own oxygen to assist a fellow climber struck ice blind and unable to make it on his own.
Or consider a similar story, the remarkable tale of Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance on their antarctic expedition. On making it to south pole, Shackleton’s boat was crushed by sea ice, and he and his crew stranded in a wasteland where no human stirred. But, over those months, Shackleton let not a single member of his crew die, and it was exactly self sacrifice and goodness that allowed these men to make it back to their families. I can’t do justice to the tale, but you really ought to read Shackleton’s own account in his book South.
The story told in the movie The Way Back, is striking in the same way. It is the (true) tale of a small number of strangers walking thousands of miles across the most treacherous ranges, deserts, and woods the Earth has to offer, in order to escape a Russian prison camp. On their vast journey across Asia, they deny countless opportunities to give up their companions for slowing them down, to increase their chances of survival by leaving one of their number, perhaps the convicted criminal, or runaway girl, to starve in the woods, or thirst in the desert. But they steadfastly refuse, and show a surprising care and even tenderness for their incidental companions
And these tales, also, are not isolated incidences. Think about the tales of 9/11, or the Boston Bombing, or things you might of heard from your grandparents of WWII. Or consider the more ordinary incidences of drivers helping push folks out of snow banks, or folks buying coffee for the person behind them in line, these sorts of little acts are happening around us all the time.
As I ran toward the finish of that race( or rather, stumbled), I heard the encouraging shouts of strangers lined up along the course as they hollered “C’mon, you got it!”, “Almost there guys, push it!”. These folks, and the runners, could’ve been expected to show little concern for those around them in the subzero Iowa winter, these folks could’ve been inside enjoying their heated homes. But they weren’t, and I think that says something.
Maybe it’s that Midwestern kindheartedness I was observing, but I don’t think so, I think it would’ve been much the same in Tallahassee or Taiwan or Timbuktu. People are basically good. They disagree a lot, and often make mistakes, they often make bad decision, and yes, are often selfish and mean. But basically, in the testing fire of hardship or tragedy, people are good.