This is an updated version of a post I wrote a while back – but it seems as essential as ever (if not more so).
I have been thinking a lot about kindness this week. This has been prompted by two things – public and personal. Seeing the outpouring of donations to the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire – only weeks after Londoners opened their homes to victims of the London Bridge attacks – moved me to tears; but it was really something else that triggered this post. In the context of things unrelated, two separate people thanked me for past kindnesses as ‘something they’d never forget’: in both instances, they were things I had completely forgotten! And it dawned on me for perhaps the first time, that that is the nature of kindness, and that is its glory.
Understand, these were not grand gestures: I didn’t pay off anyone’s mortgage, I didn’t donate a kidney. I’m not so overflowing with good deeds that these were lost in the multitude. In fact, I don’t think I am a particularly kind person. If I were to (honestly) list my virtues, kindness wouldn’t even break the top ten. I’m generous – I give freely with an open hand – but I don’t think I am possessed of that innate kindness some people are blessed with. A long life, spent mainly alone, has made me prickly and protective of my convenience: I get grumpy under obligation or if I am shaken out of my comfort zone. I mean, I’m not a monster – I will pitch in in a crisis, I wouldn’t let a pregnant woman struggle with heavy luggage and only the other week I literally helped an old lady across the road, and I didn’t even think that was a real thing that happened in the world. But part of the reason I try so hard to be thoughtful is I know how easy I find it to be thoughtless.
But kindness, by its nature, so often makes only a fleeting impact on the giver, a lasting one on the recipient. I’ve repeatedly been on the receiving end of kindness in my life – acts large and small – and they have stayed with me long after their material effect has faded. When I lost my mum and was homeless, I was overwhelmed by not just the kindness and generosity of my close friends (who, let’s face it, you sort of expect to help out when you’re desperate) but also people I hadn’t been in touch with in years, or those I barely knew. A woman I met once, a decade earlier, at a hen night, heard of my plight via our mutual friend (the hen), and offered me her flat for a week when she was on holiday. A colleague I hadn’t spoken to in years – and who, though I had always liked, I had never really been more than ‘workplace friendly’ with – messaged me on Facebook to tell me he and his girlfriend had a spare room and I was welcome to come and visit. An acquaintance said her family had a holiday home in Spain that was currently sitting empty, and I could use it until it was rented.
Many of these offers I didn’t take up, for one reason or another, and I wonder, now, if they even remember making them? If they realise that what was a passing gesture to them was permanent to me: each act of kindness another handhold that helped me scale the wall of my grief.
And I remember, too, that each of those messages was prefaced with: ‘I hope this is OK to say’… ‘I hope this isn’t presumptuous’… ‘I don’t want to intrude, but…’. And I realised that’s why people often shy from kindness. We are not mean, we are scared. Kindness is a bold and intimate act. To offer it – even in the smallest measure – is to risk rejection, embarrassment. In a world that serves up so much potential for pain, why open ourselves up to more?
Take my own ‘little old lady’ story by way of example. Walking home on a busy street at my usual rate of knots, I caught, out of the corner of my eye, sight of a woman who I thought looked to be leaning a little too hard on one of the street bollards. She wasn’t in any obvious distress, nor was she one of the too-many walking wounded you see wandering Brighton’s streets in mental or physical disarray. But some fleeting instinct stopped me. But then I thought: no, she might be offended if I speak to her. She’s probably fine. Maybe I’ll embarrass her by asking? It was only, in the end, thoughts of my mum that stirred me: would I have wanted a stranger to ask her if she needed help? And so I gingerly approached, swathed in my apologies: ‘I hoped she didn’t mind me asking, I didn’t mean to intrude, I was so sorry to bother her… but did she need help?’
And how glad I was that I did: it turned out she was in real medical distress, too weak to make it to the chemist to pick up her (obviously much-needed) heart medication, too embarrassed to call out for help, too clinging to her pensioner dignity to be willing to summon an ambulance. So I held her hand, and walked her slowly – very, very slowly! – to Boots, where we could get her a seat, her drugs and medical attention. And all the way home I fretted: what if I hadn’t asked? What if I hadn’t noticed?
Because kindness, so often, boils down to noticing. To seeing. Posting a stupid Star Wars meme on the Facebook page of a friend going through a tough time might seem little to you, but it says to them: ‘hey, I see you. I think about you enough to remember you like Star Wars, and I care enough to share something I think you will find funny.’ And that can make a difference between a good and a bad day.
Sometimes you will be called on to make grand gestures, and those are wonderful and necessary, but so often kindness is so small it’s easy to overlook, to think it doesn’t matter. It’s cooking a meal for a friend with a busted arm (yes, that was me, with the twice-broken wrist); it’s overcoming your fear that the person sitting crying next to you on the train will think you’re weird if you offer them a tissue (yup, me again). Hey, you, there: I see you. I see you are struggling. And here’s a hand.
And sometimes kindness is NOT doing something. It’s not sending that angry email or tweet, not taking your frustrations out on the lady at the train station ‘helpdesk’, not yelling at the call centre operator because your wifi went down and you are on a deadline (and, yes, I have been guilty of doing all of these, I am ashamed to say, but these days I try very, very hard to take a deep breath instead). It’s not feeling you have to pitch in on every online debate, or not valuing a joke over someone else’s dignity (remember: if your joke is punching down, it’s not humour, it’s bullying); it’s not treating people like they aren’t real and don’t have actual feelings just because you only know them from Twitter or the telly.
Part of the reason the donations to the Grenfell survivors touched me so much was this, I think, this act of seeing: these people have been made to feel unimportant and disenfranchised, their concerns dismissed, their lives belittled. And now – too late, alas, for many – Londoners of all stripes have come together and said: no. We see you. You matter. We see your suffering, and we want to help.
And part of the reason, I think, that kindness pours so freely after a tragedy is that big events surmount social convention: people are given permission to be kind, and most of them seize it gratefully. So what if we gave ourselves this permission more often? Stopped worrying about being seen as pushy, or presumptuous, or overstepping some social boundary: just be kind. It will, I promise you, be remembered.
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