Today may be the first of March, but London felt distinctly wintry this morning as I ascended the steps at Westminster tube station, bracing myself against a harsh wind, droplets of rain erratically skidding against the road. The panicked energy of rush hour was almost tangible, all overcoats and umbrellas, frustrated lines of traffic and only headlights to provide pockets of pink in a palette of dull grey. I rarely come to this part of the city, and I found myself disorientated by the one-way systems and imposing architecture.
I reached the conference centre with a sense of relief and entered to the familiarity of lukewarm coffee, polite conversation and air-conditioning. The event was aimed at people working in international development organisations, and so suddenly, in the middle of an otherwise non-remarkable day, I was being reminded of the scale of current crises facing humanity. Reminded in a distant, isn’t that terrible, urgh this coffee is cold, which room is the next session in, kind of way. I heard frightening statistics about a lost generation of Syrian refugees, and also empowering stories of hope, but in the midst of my Westminster bubble, they remained just statistics and stories.
By the end of the day my head was spinning from a combination of concentrating and consuming too much sugar. The prospect of commuting across London carrying far more belongings than fitted into my handbag seemed an unpleasant one. (Conveniently the whole concept of thousands of displaced people risking their lives to cross the ocean had already escaped my consciousness.)
But on my way home, two moments struck me. One was a lady with a pram struggling on the stairs ahead of me as people pushed past her. It took a few moments before someone offered to help, and within seconds there was a small army of strangers carrying the pram, and her weariness was replaced with a smile of gratitude. The second, was an Indian man sitting across from me in the carriage, wearing a dark green robe and resting his head on a walking stick. About ten minutes into the journey he caught my eye, leant towards me and gave me a ‘thumbs up’. I almost visibly jumped, so unexpected was the gesture in this setting and from such an unlikely character. I know what you’re thinking, maybe he was mad. The tubes are full of raving lunatics. And maybe you’re right. But I felt encouraged, and so to me, the gesture was meaningful.
If we cannot perceive the humanity in the people we see every day, how can we ever expect to empathise with people whose lives and troubles are so distinctly removed from our own?