It's been a week since I heard Bernadette Russell interviewed on a BBC Radio 4 programme, Saturday Live, but I've been thinking about it on and off ever since. The interview explored her 366 days of kindness project which started as a response to the London riots in 2011 and has continued beyond its target timescale. Listening to her talk, and to the responses that were read out by the presenters, I realised that my own concerted efforts in the kindness department could probably do with redoubling. There were two home-truths I distilled from the discussion, and I want to remember them as I move forward.
Kindness asks for nothing in return
Bernadette admitted that quite early on in the project she decided to give up expecting gratitude and act kindly for its own sake - a stance I have nothing but admiration for. In various past experiences, I've found it really difficult to live generously without external validation or recognition. It's costly; looking for ways to put others first can be a genuinely depleting experience. But being on a constant look out for their reciprocation or approval is even more exhausting. So I've stopped (or, more honestly, I'm trying to). It was good to be reminded that the only healthy way to sustain an outward focused life is to be in it for its own sake: to believe that there is intrinsic value in being loving. And leave it at that.
Kindness takes time
This is an even bigger challenge for me. I like to flatter myself that, on a basic level, I'm a kind person. I believe in making eye-contact, smiling, small talk and paying appropriate compliments. Daily. In the little things. I was raised on mottoes like 'a smile is a universal language' and 'do unto others as you would have them do to you'. But in the week since the interview, I've noticed more opportunities to go further than my default of just being relatively pleasant.
I've seen people struggling with luggage on the underground; I bought a Big Issue from a lady who was clearly freezing cold - she probably would of appreciated a hot drink; I've been acutely aware that someone in a sales role seemed to want to break away from the script and have an actual conversation. But I've been busy. This week, I have been so busy. Next week, I will be even busier. And it continues. I'm entering a profession where time is (someone else's) money, where hours are long and - allegedly - even my friends and family will be lucky to hear from me.
That's my reality, and to a certain extent I can't do that much about it. But I do have some freedoms. I can leave the house in good time to get where I'm going without resorting to getting my elbows out and treating everyone else like an obstacle or inconvenience. I can even try and give myself an extra five minutes for that optional chat, that detour to a coffee shop that gives someone a little extra dignity. I can block out some time in my diary to write that letter/card/email instead of watching TV. I can pick up the phone.
I know I can.
I can't address everything, but some kindnesses are well within my remit. So here's to re-committing to making the effort.