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Try a little kindness

In the midst of lockdown, and echoing the theme of this year's Mental Health Week, Julia Welstead takes a moment to consider acts of kindness, and what they can bring us all.

Late February 1971. I was eight, and in my usual mildly anxious state whilst waiting to clamber aboard the bus, unsure if it was the right number (my short-sightedness as yet undiagnosed) to take me home after school, when I became aware that the woman in front of me was in some difficulty. She was two pence short of her bus fare and the driver was refusing to let her on, despite her plea that the recent UK decimalisation had confused her.

Something twigged: I had a spare, shiny-new, two pence piece in my pocket. With a heady mix of pride and shyness I tapped the exasperated woman on her shoulder and proffered the coin. Both she and the driver looked surprised at my offering, but nevertheless accepted it and completed the transaction. Wobbly-legged and crimson-faced I bought my own ticket and scooted into the nearest seat to hide, but as my embarrassment ebbed, new feelings flowed. I felt kind of taller, more capable, cheerful. My internal anxieties seemed to have vanished and it was the first time I got home with my bus ticket not folded into a tiny cube. 

This fleeting vignette illustrates the power of acts of kindness, however small, for all concerned, be they the giver, the receiver, or merely witness to the gesture. All three of us: woman, driver and girl, left the scene with smiles. I’d venture to surmise that we all had better days as a result. It’s noteworthy that it remains one of my few clear memories from childhood, and I think the reason for that is simple: it taught me that helping others makes me feel good, it meets an innate need in me, and in the intervening fifty years that knowledge has significantly informed many decisions and actions.

What I’m saying here is that kindness isn’t altruistic, nor is it typically done in a spirit of, ‘do as you would be done by’. It’s more akin to our need for attention in that the giving of it is as important as the receiving, and we gain a sense of meaning and wellbeing from both. Perhaps being able to offer help panders to our essential emotional need for competence and achievement? Here’s something we can do, that someone else is struggling with. Maybe there’s a bit of gained status in there too? Look how we are championing our key workers through this pandemic: they are able and willing to do things that most of us aren’t, ergo their status is elevated to that of heroism.

Receiving, or witnessing, acts of kindness restores our faith in human nature, reassuring us that most people are intrinsically good and helpful, kind and generous. Kindness is a universally recognised human trait, the manifestation of which can unite us by reminding us that we all have common needs, and we all benefit from a bit of help.

Kindness is sometimes described as ‘selfless’ because the very act of helping another, and even the thought process that has prompted the decision to act, will have taken the perpetrator away from their own ‘selfish’ thoughts. In helping others we get out of our own heads, have a break from our infernal internal monologue, and hey presto, we feel better! Our outlook has widened, our own worries have quietened, and perhaps our perspective on our own situation has changed. 

On a national or global scale, acts of kindness often hit the news headlines and become the silver lining to the dark clouds of whatever event or crisis is unfolding. We all feel joy at these stories, bask in the glow of such evidence of human goodness, heroism, bravery or generosity, and feel united by our shared humanity. It’s hard to imagine feeling as united by news of selfish or cowardly acts as we do on hearing of kind deeds. They give us a lift, brighten our outlook, make difficult times seem possible to bear.

Looking for the silver linings of our current global Covid-19 pandemic, the emergence of human kindness has to feature highly. With the stilling of the relentless hampster wheel of work/school/shopping/entertainment, we seem to be collectively remembering the importance of connecting with each other (in ways other than physical), of caring for each other and looking out for each other, of doing things not for ourselves but on behalf of others: friends, family, neighbours, our country and our global society. In having to stay in, we are learning the importance of looking out, beyond our own needs, and we are realising that material belongings mean a lot less to us than social connection.

Another silver lining (if you can excuse metallic mash) is this golden opportunity, in this unexpected lacuna of time, to consider what sort of society we would all like to see emerge from our 2020 pandemic crisis. We all sometimes wish we could step off the bus, jump off the merry-go-round, take a break from the motorway of life, and now, here, we suddenly have that. We have a chance, at this point in time, to change how we live, how we run society, what we prioritise and who we lionise. 

What will we learn from this pause? Will we simply return to the merry-go-round, or will we make use of this collective “aha” moment and change our ways? And if we choose to change, how can we go about it?

Alongside, and intrinsic to, the development of the human givens approach to human wellbeing, the Human Givens Charter provides a positive forward looking vision of how we can change things for the better, taking into account all aspects of governance of our global human population, from security to health, education to finance, and how to best care for our world. As such it offers us the over-arching principles and the practical framework that will be needed to develop new ways of going about things. Do have a read and share it with everyone you know.

Meanwhile back at the ranch (or terrace or tenement) how can we make use of our innate resources to help everyone stay sane through the frustration of lockdown rules? Every situation is different of course, but it always helps to use the power of our imagination, put ourselves into the shoes of others, think about how they might be feeling - isolated, lonely, worried, hungry, angry, exhausted - and figure out how we might offer effective help. By looking to our essential human emotional needs, we can see what’s lacking, and figure out what actions might redress that balance.

Whatever that is, however big or small a gesture, lending someone a helping hand will help them along their way and make all concerned feel better.

[with thanks to Bobby Austin & Curt Sapaugh for their ‘Try a little kindness’ lyrics]

© Julia Welstead May 2020

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