Today is World Kindness Day. When I read this the words of my late mother come flooding back. ‘If you cannot say a kind word then it’s best to say nothing at all. If you cannot do a kind thing then it’s better to do nothing.’
Kindness seems a strangely old-fashioned word in so much of the immediate digital discourse of the modern era not least on social media. Yet it is a reality which outlasts time with its ageless truth. It captures in its word the depths of compassion and care which must surely lie at the heart of all relationships of regard and love.
I was reminded of this as I watched the first instalment of a BBC documentary ‘Inside the Care Crisis’ where the former Chancellor Ed Balls goes to work in a care home. As the programme develops its ring of truth becomes apparent as Ed by sharing in ordinary tasks like personal care discovers the dignity at the heart of good care and support. It is a moving and beautiful programme not least the gentle scenes as he and his sister meet their mother who in the advanced stages of dementia lives in another care home and only has flickering moments of memory. I recommend you watch it because in it and the lives it explores both of resident and staff you will witness what kindness, compassion, and dare I say love really are. It shows the truth that care is hard and demanding especially if you allow the cared for to take the lead, to be the centre of the support you offer. It encapsulates loving kindness.
And we so need that kindness. We need the kindness that takes a hand veined with age and in a gentle stroke offers assurance to replace the terror dementia brings. We need the kindness that sits beside someone as in rasping breath life leaves a body tired of living. We need the kindness that is prepared to cope with the screams and scratches, the dirt and muck which comes with caring for someone at their most vulnerable and confused. We need a kindness that doesn’t pretend knowledge or expertise but sits alongside and simply is.
Kindness seems so alien to so much discourse and debate. Yet the pandemic in its early months and still I would argue today has shown us what a difference kindness can and is still making to our communities. And these acts are not giant gestures or great moments which get noticed or get onto TV – they are the small acts of humanity, the openness of neighbourliness and the solidarity of sympathy.
Sometimes faced with such large societal challenges such as the pandemic we can become paralysed by the thought that our action will not make a difference, our word will not be heard above the noise, our gesture will be rejected. But small acts really do change those around us.
On November 13th each year, on World Kindness Day, people from around the world share with others the actions they have undertaken or witnessed which have made a difference. It is a day to share the random acts of kindness where total strangers help another. Started in 1998 it is a day with no religious or political ties but one which in a growing number of nations, in schools and colleges, hospitals and care homes, businesses and organisations, people are asked to show kindness and be kind. In the UK you can find out more about the day at www.kindnessuk.com
And of course, kindness is good for you! There is a growing volume of academic research and study which shows that being kind brings considerable psychological and emotional benefit including extending our life. But we do not act in kindness thinking of return we do so because it is instinctive to our humanity.
World Kindness Day was in part influenced by the movie which appeared in the following year. Pay it Forward illustrated the power one person can have by creating a chain reaction of positive deeds and actions. It underpins the argument that we create a caring society not by policy and pronouncement alone but by individual acts of kindness which collectively mould a new way of relating to others.
I was reminded of all this in the last couple of weeks when talking to some frontline staff in the care sector who are absolutely exhausted with all they have done to meet the challenges of the pandemic both in care homes and in home care services. They are a workforce which is running on empty because they have walked not just an extra mile but a marathon in their dedication and care. One of the folks I spoke to said when I asked her what would make the difference, that whilst all the mental health supports, all the increased focus on improving terms and conditions, are very necessary and welcome, what would make a real difference was to feel valued, to be appreciated and thanked. She reflected that in the last year people began to appreciate the work of care a lot more than previously but that that seems in the last few months to have disappeared as frustrations have grown at lack of service, changes to staffing and other pressures the social care system knows only too well. She recounted a time when after a really emotional shift a family member of a resident who had just died gave her a piece of paper which simply said, ‘Thank you.’ She spoke about how that absolutely ended her – it was not a card or gift but a bit of handwritten paper that said it all. It was an act of kindness that enabled her to come back the following day despite her sense of deflation and exhaustion.
Undeniably the next few weeks and months as we enter a winter of real challenge will test us all in ways, we may never even imagine possible. But I do not think it is trite at all to be reminded that in our encounters with others, perhaps especially with those with whom we might have disagreement or difference, that the word and act of kindness brings greater change than we can possibly imagine.
The current Poet Laureate Simon Armitage has very many brilliant poems but one of my favourites in its raw simplicity is Give – it describes the essence of a kindness which demands action and response, rather than passivity and acceptance. It is a poem spoken by a homeless person sleeping in a doorway and asking for some compassion from a stranger.
World Kindness Day will ring hollow and empty unless the individual acts of our compassionate kindness are taken beyond the moment into the rhythm of our living and relating to others. It is then through the activity of kindness that we create communities of compassion, care, and change.
Of all the public places, dear
to make a scene, I’ve chosen here.
Of all the doorways in the world
to choose to sleep, I’ve chosen yours.
I’m on the street, under the stars.
For coppers I can dance or sing.
For silver-swallow swords, eat fire.
For gold-escape from locks and chains.
It’s not as if I’m holding out
for frankincense or myrrh, just change.
You give me tea. That’s big of you.
I’m on my knees. I beg of you.