Our vices will abort of themselves if they be brought every day to the shrift. Seneca 4 BC – 65 AD

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

Anna Douglas

December 31st 2016

As a refugee you may forget what you lost but you won’t forget the welcome you received.

It’s an incredible statistic: There are now more than 65 million displaced people in the world – people who have had to leave their homes to flee wars and conflict. That’s more than the population of the UK.  More than half of them are women and children, all of them making tortuous journeys looking for safety.

As we’ve seen on our TV screens, the journeys are themselves highly dangerous. Tragically, for many refugees seeking a safe haven their flight ends with them losing their lives. In 2015 alone, 3771 people died crossing the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe. Many more died at other crossings or borders.

And the lucky ones who make it to a safe country find that their journey to a new life is far from over as they face the grim and grinding business of finding a way through often inhumane asylum systems that are mostly aimed not at welcoming people in need, but at keeping them out.

Putting down roots in a new home and restoring some dignity can be a lengthy and frustrating process – doubly difficult for people whose only fault is to have hopes and aspirations for themselves and their children. Having lost everything in their escape from war and persecution, they find themselves victims again – victims of the politics of fear, and increasingly polarised public attitudes as rich western states focus more on reinforcing their borders rather than on identifying ways of dealing with the crisis.

I am no stranger to this: I arrived in Coventry in the UK in the back of a lorry as a refugee from Afghanistan, and now I run a charity which seeks to help other refugees arriving in the city. It’s the very charity that did so much to help me.

My story as a refugee goes back to 1992, and the start of the Afghan civil war. Religious fighters soon took over the capital Kabul where I lived with my family, and toppled the communist regime, but then came heavy fighting between different factions.

It was terrifying and bloody and amid heavy bombing and shelling, my family left Kabul for the eastern city of Jalalabad where we ended up in a refugee camp, just another family among the thousands of people displaced by the fighting. We had no desire to leave Afghanistan. We thought the war would end soon and looked forward to going home to rebuild our lives. That was not to be.

Life in our huge camp was grim. I was lucky because I had my family, but it was intensely distressing and frustrating as the days stretched out with nothing to do and nowhere to go, missing everyday things like going to school, playing with friends. It is often forgotten that there are some 30 million people displaced by conflict within their own countries, all of them counting the days, weeks, years, before they can go home.

But in Afghanistan things got even worse. In 1999 with the Taliban regime under attack from the West, many young people were being forced to join either Taliban fighters or the forces of an opposing warlord.

My family, thinking only of my safety, decided that I would have to leave. Heading off to the unknown, thinking that I may never see my family again, was traumatic. Although my journey was so difficult I often came close to giving up, I was constantly haunted by thoughts of what my parents and my brother must be going through.

How they must have felt to see me leave is impossible for me to imagine, especially now I am a father myself. I occasionally have to travel for my work but I can’t bear for a day to go by without seeing my young children.

I pray they never have to endure a journey like mine. There were many times along the way when I thought I was about to die. The threat of violence or starvation was ever-present as I and 50 men, women and children crammed into a lorry, made our way across Europe. The agents who take your money and organise the travel never warn of the dangers, and people can be hugely misled. There were many times I wanted to just give up, but there was no going back.

I could not have betrayed the faith my parents had placed in me. With me on my way to Europe, they and my brother had meanwhile got to Peshawar in Pakistan where they still live as refugees.

Finally, on a gloomy, drizzly day in December 1999, I and my fellow travellers arrived in Dover. We clambered out of the lorry to be greeted by the police whilst being barked at heavily by their dogs. Not a bad welcome!

Through an interpreter a Home Office official told me “You are a person liable to be detained because you have entered the country illegally” – as if there was a legal way of fleeing the situation in Afghanistan. How could one go to the Taliban then, or to the Assad regime in Syria today, to ask for documents to flee their regimes?

After a couple of nights in Dover, we were split into groups and addressing our group, the Home Office official said with a smile on her face, “You lot will be sent to Coventry!” It took me two years to work out what that smile meant – a lot less than the time it took me to learn how to get on and off the Coventry ring road!

I didn’t know it, but this was the last leg of my journey. After what seemed like hours, we were dropped off in the Hillfields area of Coventry, where five of us ended up in a two-bedroom terraced house. I got the sofa, where I stayed for a year and a half. It wasn’t much, but coming from the dreadful conflict into which I was born and brought up, we had very low expectations. To us, it didn’t seem too bad. And we hadn’t ended up in prison.

But the frustrations started as we began a new gruelling journey through the asylum process. To prove our need for protection was almost as long and tortuous as the journey we had endured to get to the UK. For some time we were dreading opening any post in case there was another refusal letter from the Home Office. But again I didn’t give up. I couldn’t betray the faith my parents had placed in me.

At that time, Coventry did not have a specific service for refugees, but in months of my arrival I met Penny Walker who was operating an advice drop-in from a laundrette in Hillfields, an inner-city neighbourhood. I started learning English and volunteered to help other refugees. This informal drop-in turned into today’s Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre, of which I have been the director for the past two years.

Penny and her group of volunteers were incredibly helpful but most importantly they listened and tried to understand our needs, although there was very little that could be done. It was that first welcome and happy smiley faces that helped us in developing a sense of belonging to this city. As a refugee you may forget what you lost but you won’t forget the welcome you received.

Today, 17 years later, not much has changed for refugees. The journeys they face have become tougher, those seeking asylum are not trusted and are increasingly seen as problems to be dealt with or kept out, not as people in need of help.

As I welcome families and their children to Coventry as the Director of the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre, I can see my pain, and my hopes and aspirations in their faces and their eyes.

Far from being a threat, refugees can be an asset to their adopted homes. Refugees can make great contributions if they are given the chance to do so. I sought sanctuary in this country, the community invested in me, and I am now proud to pay back but I am not unique. Every refugee has something special to offer if we invest early in their integration.

I was touched by the existing culture of volunteering and compassion in this city.

We must start moving people from war into prosperity and not poverty. When refugees prosper, we all prosper.

Sabir Zazai, Director, Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre


Kindness is not just doing good to someone, it is also not doing harm to anyone.

By Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra

As a Muslim, I think of kindness and mercy interchangeably. I struggle to distinguish between the two.

In writing, it’s tempting to recount the kind of stereotypical kindness many of us have experienced when a stranger helps us out of difficulty. A Reverend colleague of mine and I were visiting West Sussex when we lost our way. Well, I guess you’d expect two men of the cloth to trust God more than a GPS device! After trying a few roundabouts, my colleague Andrew eventually pulled over in a lay-by, whereupon a road maintenance worker not only gave us directions, but kneeling down to draw us a map, patiently explained how we might find the University of Chichester. Yet this is not the story I really want to share with you. It is this one.

One evening, some months back, my wife and I were watching a fascinating wildlife documentary on the National Geographic channel. A lion waited patiently for a wildebeest to give birth before pouncing on her newly born calf. The mother tried in vain to rescue her baby. Grieving for her loss, she watched from a distance as the lion prepared to kill his prey. The little calf, dazed and soaked in the afterbirth was totally helpless. Anticipating the impending kill, I was relieved when my wife nipped into the kitchen to fix a cup of tea, thinking she would be spared the scene. The lion toyed with his prey, lightly striking it yet not causing any injury. I then quickly realised that this mighty king of the jungle was going soft. He was having second thoughts. And then to my utter astonishment and great relief, not only did the lion not kill his prey but he actually allowed the little calf to snuggle up to him and find comfort in the warmth of his body. Eventually, the lion let the vulnerable calf go free and my wife and I were delighted to see mother and calf re-united. Even a ferocious hungry predator managed to show kindness to a helpless creature.

Yet what has happened to man – the most intelligent of God’s creation? The act of kindness shown by the lion is what the Messenger Muhammad (peace be upon him) referred to when he explained: “God has divided kindness into 100 parts and kept 99 parts for Himself and placed one part on the earth as a result of which all creatures show kindness to one another”. He encouraged people to be kind and merciful to everyone, “God is only merciful to those who show mercy to others”, he declared. In fact, he gave a direct command to all Muslims, “Be merciful to those on earth, so the One in the heavens will be merciful to you”. Adding, “He who is deprived of kindness is deprived of goodness”. When we are kind to others it is in our own interest for we are the first beneficiaries of that kindness.

Being kind is the hallmark of a believer. “The believer is kind and gracious, for there is no goodness in one who is neither kind nor gracious. The best of people are those who are most beneficial to people”, stated Muhammad. Being kind means helping the weak and those in trouble, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, consoling the grieved and forgiving others. Maybe we are not able to do all this, yet we can still be kind.

If we cannot do something good to others as an act of kindness, then the very least we can do is to ensure we do them no harm. We must make sure that we do not hurt the feelings of others by being nasty; nor inconvenience them by our behaviour; we do not deprive them by our selfishness, nor dishonor them by gossiping or by spreading rumours and much more. This is why I believe kindness is not only doing something good to others, but it is also not doing any wrong to others.

Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra serves as a community imam in Leicester and is the Muslim chaplain in Canary Wharf. He is engaged in national and international inter faith work and is a frequent contributor to the media.


Reflection 7.

Speaking well of someone feels nicer.
Benjamin Franklin said: “Speak ill of no man, but speak all the good you know of everybody.” Gossiping is so much part of day-to-day sociability. But I am finding that I feel so much nicer in myself if gossiping doesn’t involve speaking ill of people (now this is a big aspiration). I am making a deliberate policy to say lots of nice things about people I know, and some I don’t know. It is truly shocking how embarrassed people become when you focus on something nice about them!


Reflection 6.

Stepping into someone else’s shoes is challenging BUT can be a fertile meeting ground of shared understanding.
A big challenge for me has been to step into someone else shoes. I am trying to not be quick to judge and to hold back judgement (of others). Being curious about other people, their beliefs and ideas – even if you do not like their ideas – is so much more interesting than jumping to conclusions and my own prejudices. And applying this learning to myself too, to be curious in my own thoughts and beliefs (some call this self-kindness or compassion, certainly beats beating myself up or wallowing in self-pity).

Reflection 5.

Taking public transport provides an opportunity to interact with a wider variety of people then I know.
Many of my kindness experiences seem to happen on public transport.
It seems that public transport offers a space in which people, de-centred from their familiar home or work spaces and routines, can be receptive to the needs of others, whether lost, lonely, late or plain confused. Public transport provides a space to loose yourself in your own i-phone, or to take the opportunity to connect with strangers. I am relishing the opportunity to do the latter.
Long live public transport!


Reflection 4.

Talking to strangers can leave me feeling happier.
I am taking the opportunity to chat with the elderly lady in the post office queue, not to get irritated by the pensioner who cannot find their money in the corner shop. And to have a banter. I’ve really enjoyed some wonderful conversations I would otherwise never had had and often find myself leaving with a spring in my step and much happier.

Reflection 3.

A simple smile can give someone a feeling of existence.
If there is only one thing I take away from this project it is the importance of smiling. Where can I start with this simple revelation? The surprising fact that smiling makes me feel better in myself, AND I know that it helps smooth the way with the first interaction with strangers or new circumstances. But the most important thing I have experienced is that the simple act of smiling validates someone’s existence. Smilling at someone who is homeless on the street, for example, someone who so many people step over, does two things: it confirms in my mind’s eye the existence of someone who is marginal; and it says to them: “I see you, you exist for me, you are not invisible”.
When two people find themselves smiling with each other it is powerful stuff.


Reflection 2.

Reaching out to strangers often leads to unpredicted experiences that are joyful and expansive.
I am often feeling so busy I don’t have time to do things that are not immediately productive. But slowing down and taking the time to reach out to others whom I do not normally encounter has resulted in some enriching experiences. Like with this man selling paper flowers in austerity Madrid. We couldn’t speak each other’s language, but with facial smiles, miming and human touch we produced a little moment of joyfulness.