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The essence of humanity...

Mike Gaunt

I’ve just been reading our local newspaper in Portugal. More than 400 people who live on the streets are being helped in the current cold spell.

The weather is due to take a particularly wicked turn and could dip to below freezing during the next few days.

Now, I know that to many this isn’t a problem. ‘Just turn the heating up’, I hear you say, or ‘put on another coat’.

It is easy to forget, in the reasonably balmy Middle East, what cold weather feels like.

It can be most uncomfortable, especially if you don’t have a home and are forced to sleep outside most of the time.

The elderly and the young are particularly at risk.

The city council in Lisbon is being rather proactive and is thinking of these homeless people.

It is putting aside some warm areas.

As an example, some Metro stations are being left open overnight.

This means that homeless people don’t have to be cold.

There is a pavilion which is allowed to stay open all the time.

This means that people have somewhere to go to be warm.

Advice is being given about how to ensure that you stay hydrated and that you drink hot drinks such as soup.

The health service is on ‘yellow alert’ and is monitoring the situation. It is not just in the cities, either.

The Northern region, which is often colder than Lisbon, has urged those living in isolated country areas to refrain from sleeping near to wood fires and to be careful of carbon monoxide fumes from inefficient heaters.

There is a high degree of care and concern being demonstrated by public bodies which is encouraging.

In a play called The devil’s disciple, by George Bernard Shaw, appears the famous quotation “the worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity”.

This is not a reference to animals. Rather it is a reference to man.

People, that is.

The idea is that if you ignore people’s needs then you are being indifferent to them.

The premise of this is that this is worse than hate.

Shaw has a point, I think. To simply ignore the needy, the hard up, the disenfranchised, is worse than showing them antipathy and disgust.

At least those dreadful, negative, corrosive sentiments acknowledge the existence of a person.

But to be indifferent to their needs is to fail to credit them with even being there. That’s awful.

“The essence of inhumanity,” says Shaw. It is a little like the story of the good Samaritan, isn’t it?

Many people pass by on the other side of the road, indifferent to suffering.

That’s easy. Keep your eyes averted and pretend there isn’t a person just over there.

Their dignity may prevent them from seeking help. It takes an effort to go over and engage.

It is more difficult and involves conversation and time. But it is the right thing to do.

We know that it is.

But we don’t do it. We remain indifferent to others’ suffering.

How dare we!

Mike Gaunt is a former assistant headmaster at St Christopher’s School, Bahrain –

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