This is a good time to remember what human nature really is

2 Jun 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 2 Jun 2020

It is Volunteers’ Week. Given that the world feels like it is descending somewhere dark, it truly is worth remembering how much people are willing to help others without expecting anything in return.


Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian whose fame went up several notches after he was invited to speak at Davos last year and ended up delivering some frank truths to billionaires.

His latest book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, is about how “catastrophes bring out the best in people.”

Mr Bregman says that he is, to some degree, a reformed cynic. A wide range of research took him to the conclusion that human beings are generally kind and good and keen to look after one another.

“I know of no other sociological finding that’s backed by so much solid evidence that’s so blithely ignored,” he told the New Statesman last month.

This is all very different from the stories we tell ourselves.

Apocalyptic fiction has become rote. The end of the world is a great basis for drama and creators in every medium have gone to that well, again and again. Collectively we have seen civilisation collapse in too many ways to mention.

In some ways that reflects the past century or so: two world wars, nuclear proliferation, climate change.

Today feels like a time of peril. Scenes from across the Atlantic are galling. The United States of America, the most powerful country in the world, is in chaos. The US is our ally and - for good and bad - has led the world for decades.

And, of course, there is the pandemic.

So perhaps it is a jarring time to talk about how many people show kindness to complete strangers. Or, perhaps, it is not jarring at all.

Volunteers’ Week

June 1st to June 7th is Volunteers’ Week in the UK. Volunteers’ Week is “an annual celebration of the contribution millions of people make across the UK through volunteering”.

Days, weeks and months devoted to specific causes exist to raise awareness of good work being done, attract more support for that good work, and as a celebration for those already involved.

Volunteerism is a major part of human nature and, the more difficult times get, the more important it is to remember this.

And, according to Mr Bregman, the more obvious this good nature becomes.

When movies or books or games talk about social breakdown, they tend to focus on a form of selfish survivalism. People look after themselves and the people they care about. Relationships with those they do not know are potential sources of conflict.

Reality is more banal. It is more complicated. It is also better. Civilisation is not some constructed façade. It is part of who we are.

Covid-19 has killed huge numbers of people. The pandemic was never going to be apocalyptic but has nevertheless brought mass death, suffering and mourning – all while social links are temporarily dissolved as part of the effort to tackle the virus.

People responded in different ways.

For a couple of weeks, toilet roll became a precious commodity. This was survivalism, of a sort, a kind of laughable, senseless panic.

But when Volunteer Now - tasked with recruiting help to deal with the pandemic - opened its website for applications, it had to close it shortly after due to the huge volume of people signing up.


The community and voluntary sector has played a major role in steering Northern Ireland through the pandemic and, simply put, the sector relies on its volunteers. They deserve huge credit.

They have helped deliver food and medicines to vulnerable people all over NI. They have hit the phones making safe-and-well calls, or even just having a chat, with people who are at risk of loneliness or isolation. Some volunteers are able to use their own specialist skills when helping others.

Denise Hayward, Chief Executive of Volunteer Now, said: “During the current crisis, we know that the role volunteers have played has been very important and we want to say thank you.

“We also know that many people who would normally volunteer are not able to as some are self-isolating and some organisations are going through difficult times and their volunteers are not currently engaging in their usual roles.

“With this in mind we feel strongly that is it important to mark the Week and to use it as a ‘Time to Say Thank You’ to all volunteers. “We want to highlight the individual acts of kindness which are keeping everyone going at this difficult time, as well as remembering all of the volunteering which normally takes place throughout the year.”

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey said: “The current health pandemic gripping almost every country in the world has demonstrated the value of volunteering. I am truly heartened by the generosity and wonderful sense of community on display in every corner of our society where people from all walks of life stepped forward to help.

“Everyone has a vital part to play, those who have got involved in compassionate, creative and meaningful ways delivering food for others, collecting and delivering essential items from pharmacies so that the most vulnerable can be protected, and those who provide telephone support that reassures people confined to their home, I say a big ‘Thank You’.

“We are fortunate that a strong sense of community prevails despite the changing pace of life.  Acts of kindness by our volunteers help create successful, strong, vibrant and prosperous communities which makes for a better place to live and work.”

It makes perfect sense to focus, right now, on volunteering during the pandemic. However, Northern Ireland got a huge amount from voluntary help before the rise of Covid-19 and will do so again when we arrive in whatever manifests as the new normal.

Volunteers help older people. They help young people. They help animals, the natural world, they work in health and in education. The value of the voluntary sector is enormous – which shows the importance of the volunteers themselves.

Human nature

The last few months have been an almost relentless assault of terrible news.

Being cooped up at home, largely unable to see friends and family, is bad enough without consuming the news in papers, on TV or online.

The UK’s response to Covid-19 has been inchoate, insubstantial and evasive. The only thing world-beating has been the death rates.

Yesterday, the Leader of the Free World has threatened to turn his own military on his own citizens – the people he is supposed to serve – while his country is in crisis.

Focusing only on the dark aspects of the world is bad for you, and does not lead to a great understanding of the world.

Per Mr Bregman: “What I’m trying to do is to redefine realism, I’m trying to say that actually the cynic is naive... If you look at empirical evidence then you find that assuming the best in other people gets you the best results.”

Despite the stories we tell ourselves, humans are not fundamentally selfish. Drama tends to be overly dramatic (which is not to say reality cannot be every bit as interesting or shocking as a film or book).

People will help strangers without thinking of themselves. They do this all the time, and in many different ways. It pays to remember that.

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