“Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution”
I was reading the news today and there was talk of missiles and racism and general murder and mayhem and I just about threw my computer up into the air in despair (but not really as it’s new) because it all felt too awful and I couldn’t handle reading one more story like that. And then I gave myself a shake and opened up an old issue of Psychologies magazine (think it was an UK edition) and there was a whole dossier on the concept of kindness.
Well, it was JUST what my heart needed. Because what I’ve noticed during my recent travels is that the world in general is in a state of uncertainty and anxiety. We’re all feeling fragile, teetering on the edge of change (not all of it good) and this is not a particularly South African problem (without minimising our political turmoil or our vast socioeconomic problems at all). We’re all searching for stability, safety and comfort but the world doesn’t want to give those to us.
So what do we do in these times, in order not to feel helpless, and to conserve our own happiness? It’s something I’ve been contemplating a lot lately.
I think the first thing is to try and be aware of our emotions. Psychologies mentions a concept called “negativity bias”, a tendency for us to react more quickly to negative events and give them more airtime, blowing them up beyond what is reasonable. This ties into a concept I heard about on the documentary The Minimalists – which describes how a certain amount of worry is helpful to our survival (and functioning as a normal human being), but once it goes beyond a specific level, it only hinders us, it no longer helps us.
The first thing we need to do in these situations is unplug. Turn off that laptop, ignore your Twitter feed. Get out into the real world, whether it’s a walk to your local cafe, or a stroll in a park, and observe all the good folk just going about their lives, the smile between a mother and her child, two friends giving each other a hug hello. We can become so caught up in our own internal stresses and internal dialogue that all the good stuff becomes impossible to see. So in these situations we simply have to break the cycle and get out.
And then there’s kindness itself. So underrated and ignored, but in the confused world we now find ourselves in, so incredibly necessary. In fact, it’s one trait I’m trying hard to instill in my kids, because as much as we think it’s inherent, I don’t necessarily believe it is. There are every day ways to teach it, which I’ve touched on before here.
Kindness can take many forms. It can be as simple as complimenting a stranger on their coat, or the service they just gave you in a restaurant, or letting someone who looks like they’re in a real rush go before you in the queue. It could be strangers but it can also be easily extended to your friends: anticipating when they may need some time away from their kids (I’ll host a playdate!), offering to bring over a hot meal, taking them medicine when they’re sick. In its essence, it’s about doing something without expecting anything in return (but it’s amazing how the universe somehow does return that kindness to you, in unexpected ways).
This brings me to the concept of “paying it forward” – something that happened this weekend to us in Joburg, when someone did something unexpectedly kind and generous for us. They simply said “pay it forward” and it took me a while to remember what this concept meant, the idea of doing something kind for someone else (“paying it forward”), not the person who had done the original kind act for you. It’s a concept I hadn’t considered for so long, but I’m intent on paying it forward soon, and asking that person to then do the same. And it sort of makes me imagine a golden chain of goodness slowly extending across our lives, little kind act by little kind act, link by link, and that makes me feel much better.
Of course, kindness and altruism can take more concise forms, such as donating money or goods to charities or volunteering of our time. Altruism has far reaching consequences to individuals and to society, and goes beyond merely being a “do gooder”, it can improve your own happiness too. Because when we start feeling helpless about the world at large, what else can we do but start where we are, and start making that corner of our world a little kinder?
I’ve been a bit absent from this blog and I suppose I’ve been ruminating on lots of things, unable to commit to one single idea or blog post idea (I keep starting them and deleting them!). But it’s all become a little clearer to me today. I’ve been travelling a lot but the next month is all about staying put, taking stock and being kind (which starts with showing yourself kindness too).
Hope your weeks are kind, and hopefully it keeps on raining in Cape Town.