Our vices will abort of themselves if they be brought every day to the shrift. Seneca 4 BC – 65 AD
It is tempting, as the Kindness Initiative comes to a close, to feel compelled to complete one great act of kindness to round off the year. But the Kindness Initiative has never been about ‘the grand gesture’.
A year ago, embarking on the project, which amalgamates neuroscience with its hypothesis that repetitive behaviour and thoughts can ‘re-programme’ the brain thus affecting our behaviours; and durational performance art, by which an artist explores, examines and reflects upon the effect of a repeated act (executed to the point of transformation, affecting the act itself, the performer, and the audience), I had no idea how the year would unfold, nor how the project would affect me or impinge on my life; and not forgetting that of the life of my collaborator Sarah Silverwood, who has with unfaltering commitment participated in this daily work of reflection with her marvelous drawings.
There has been so much recently written about kindness and its affects: books, websites and other projects – many of which have been referenced on Kindness Initiative over 366 days – each postulate a definition. Of these many expositions, one has really stuck with me; that kindness is a state of positive and open receptiveness in which the various needs of others are recognised, and come to the fore before fulfilling ones own. Of course, such a definition does not place a full stop after ‘kindness’, for how might any of us define the ‘needs’ of others; do we weigh them against our own only to recognise what we view as important to ourselves?
To be kind, as our second Think Piece author, psychotherapist James Barrett suggests, one must develop an authentic interest in ‘the other’ and not reduce their ways of being in the world to our own. We may not personally share all the ‘needs’ of others, however, it is an act of kindness (or more a process of kindness) to seek to develop (the intention being itself an act of kindness) the capacity to value the needs of others as we value our own.
How can we develop receptiveness to others? For our third and forth authors, Dean John Widdicombe and Ibrahim Mogra receptiveness is formed within faith; “one person’s need becomes another person’s concern”; being a tenet of Christianity. Ibrahim Mogra rasises makes a significant if less obvious contribution, that kindness may also include avoidance – refraining from doing something or someone harm. Religious belief, in theory at least, provides a guiding principle in which one learns to step outside individual needs, to recognise and act upon those of others, in an act of common humanity. Over the year, I have returned many times to this idea of a ‘common humanity’ and concomitantly social solidarity; both proving to be significant themes that have taken many forms; delightful, pleasurable, touching and many with long-term affect
For decades, social policy throughout the western world has pursued ‘a politics of difference’, giving rise to each country’s multi-culturalism; and a politics of individuality, that has taken various forms both politically radical, enshrining for example a range of ‘minority’ rights; but has also given rise to a corrosive, materialist understanding of the self in which ‘what you are is what you own’, with trans-national companies hi-jacking the politics of individuality, to exalt, as Nike did famously to: “Just Do it”! What might on first appearance appear inclusive, exalts us to assert our difference in competition against others.
Humanity and solidarity are the subject of our fifth and final essay. Writing of his perilous journey of exile, UK Charity director Sabir Zazai not only reminds us how lucky most of us are never to have to flee our homeland, but also points to a new and urgent challenge in valuing the world as if it belongs to us all, not somewhere and something to plunder, as James Barrett warns, but to come to view the plight of others as the plight of our own. In other words, to appreciate sameness over difference, global citizenship over nationalism.
If there was one ‘grand act of kindness’ this year, it was volunteering at the refugee camp at Calais, France, where I was profoundly struck by the same feeling over and again: how would I, indeed could I, cope with what most people around me were enduring. I concluded that this was beyond my imagination. I left the camp not feeling pity for those living in terrible conditions, but awe for their endurance and hope. And a desire – in fact a need – to understand the world in which I live, with others, differently.
Remember the butterfly flapping its wings, the origins of chaos theory? It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the desertification of vast territories of the Indian and African continents is affecting European countries; and that wars across the Middle East is resulting in the self-preserving exile of millions. War and climate change have been causes of human migration throughout history. As we flaunt our affluence to the rest of the world, is it any wonder we orchestrate the desire of others deprived of our ‘luxury’, to have what we see as our birth right – to live in affluence in all respects? But this is grand thinking. What about my day-to-day relations?
Despite the framework of a year-long challenge (to keep going and to see what would might transpire through doing so), I didn’t enter each day seeking to make ‘an act of kindness’ happen. Nor implement a progressive programme to do x on such-a-such day, as the on-line Kindness Advent Calendar instructs. No, life, was to unfold as close to normally as possible without any affected or deliberate behaviour.
In the first few weeks of the Kindness Initiative, a facebook follower remarked that “whilst not complaining”, he found my daily commentary “more like mindfulness that kindness” per se. As the year unfolded this reader’s comments have been enthusiastically accepted and absorbed into the project as part of coming towards an understanding of kindness. Rather than follow a programme of aggrandising acts of kindness, each day has comprised, instead, of a process of reflection.
In asking myself towards the end of each day what kindness is, and questioning if I have practiced or received what I recognise it to be, I find myself in the footsteps of the popular Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca who called for a nightly reckoning:
“We should every night call ourselves to an account. What infirmity have I mastered today? What passions opposed? What temptations resisted? What virtue acquired? Our vices will abort of themselves if they be brought everyday to the shrift”.
By this process I have come to think more deeply and questioningly, even critically, about kindness and my part in it. I cannot proclaim to be a kinder person by the end of this year, but I do believe I am more strongly aware of the consequence of my actions, and have developed a greater capacity for appreciating and by extension practicing generous behaviours – which I consider kindness in great part to be. Generosity, not necessarily in the sense of gift-giving, but in developing a capacity for relating to others and things. Kindness, therefore, being greater than a one-off act, even if regularly repeated, but translating as a ‘state of mind’, a condition of being. It requires stepping outside of oneself, to see others; and is about practicing, in all its many guises, care for fellow humans, animals and things, and creating moments of connection.
Connecting with others is personally challenging and certainly can be hard. I’ve noticed how much my capacity for connection – holding others in mind – is affected by time. On days when I am rushing, it’s hard to step outside of immediate needs. Noticing this has resulted in my intentionally trying to slow down, enabling me to notice others around me. It is not always possible, but I try each day to make this time. Traveling in our own cars minimises connection and I have striven throughout the year to use more public transport to maximise my connection with members of ‘the public’. As Kio Stark observes in her engaging book ‘Talking with Strangers’:
“When you talk to strangers you are making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life and that of others. You are making unexpected connections. If you do not talk to strangers you are missing out on all of that. We could reject all the ideas that makes us so suspicious of each other, we could make a space for change” (see http://bit.ly/2dZb2Dh ).
Slowing down creates the capacity to marvel, to notice the world around us; not just nature but all aspects of urban life. Marvelling is linked to kindness. It comes from an awareness that life is fragile and precious and should be treasured at every moment. By marvelling at the quirks and kinks of others, and the things around us, we create the capacity to be astonished and surprised rather than fearful of behaviour and beliefs alien to us not by human nature but by culture and habit. Our first Think Piece author Emiliana Simon-Thomas suggests that as humans we seek kindness and sharing by our nature. I’d go further to suggest that, and despite decades of attacks on public services and the promotion of individualism, we today need to re-assert the value of solidarity. Never before in human history have we needed to assert not simply kindness, or sharing, or compassion, or love, or the avoidance of harm, BUT the more muscular endeavor of solidarity as the basis of human survival.
This is not to say that all actions need to be public or political or indeed worthy. My year of kindness started off with a quiet exchange. Someone on a train noticing I was not well and offering me her handkerchief. Throughout the year, I have received similar acts of quiet thoughtfulness (interesting most often connected with public transport) and care, and I have given likewise to strangers as well as friends and family. I have experienced the comforting warmth that comes with being noticed and cared for – a friend paying for lunch, or remembering a difficult day and phoning; and I know that others have experienced likewise as a consequence of my actions. And, I’m trying harder to make time to engage with the day-to-day lives of friends, particularly those going through challenging times.
In answer to the question, “is it better to give than to receive”? I’ve shifted ground. Receiving can fill one with immense pleasure; a birthday card from a distant friend momentarily fills the absence, and an out-of-the-blue compliment from a stranger brings me to presence. However, I have come to appreciate bringing others to mind – including total strangers, and those I may never come to meet. It is hard to put this feeling into words. People have attempted describing the feeling arising from kindness as a warmish heat arising from the heart through the body. We do not have the phrase ‘open-hearted’ for nothing.
This last year, I have experienced this feeling from the heart. It is neither something I would have believed in this time last year, let alone anticipated ever feeling, nor could name. It doesn’t often last long, a passing wave via an exchange with a stranger in the street – the homeless man who thanked me just for stopping and smiling (seeing him exist). But its affects can last, changing the course of the day entirely. Once you recognise this is how the kindness of others affects you, it is a small step to realising you can have the same affect too. My behaviour – good or bad – can affect the day of a stranger as much as my own.
Am I a kinder person than before, who knows? But it has come to me that we are all responsible for creating the conditions for connection and solidarity, a feeling that ‘we are all in this together’. That’s powerful stuff to contemplate and act upon. And this is what I am taking forward into 2017 and beyond.
If you want to read all our Think Piece essays, expanding ideas of what is kindness, go to: www.kindnessinitiative/thinkpiece
December 31st 2016