More on kindness

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Every night my parents pray that I and my brother might fall in love with someone kind. Not good looking, not rich, not ambitious, not overly spiritual or particularly intelligent, but kind. Their own experiences give rise to the hope that their children might be cared for in ways more long-lasting than the material. Any or all of these other traits are a bonus. Or would be a bonus were it not for the fact that they can spoil a person: beauty creates a beast, riches become blind to rags, ambition stand astride compassion like a colossus, revered by society and far above others’ petty concerns.

Are there good-looking people with money and aspirations who are also kind? Is it possible to remain wealthy or to have your ambitions realised without being a little ruthless, a little unconcerned with the situation of others? It is possible to be a spiritual person and not be kind, hundreds of years of religious burnings and sacrifice and judgement and exclusion have proven that. And perhaps it is the intelligent person who realises kindness is not the way to power and greatness. The kind person is the one who will not be as successful in the world’s eyes as they could be.

It is possible to show kindness without being kind. A broken bag’s contents rescued for a stranger or a marathon run for charity are acts of kindness, wildly different in scope and impact. But unless these are undertaken within the context of a life with many kind acts – both large and small – and a character that performs them with the same ease and motivation as breathing, they are merely a reflection of others’ kindness. That is not to say that showing self-conscious kindness is a bad thing, but that it can be a social construction. Acts of generosity or deference or etiquette are a way of exercising kind behaviour for your own sense of beneficence or even a greater social good. The western understanding of karma emphasises this: do good and good will be done unto you.

When a successful pop star lends their celebrity to a charity event, their ‘kindness’ may appear self-serving. When they provide free tickets for children and families who would not otherwise be able to afford it, their kindness seems more genuine. When they habitually use their celebrity status, with no fiscal incentive, to help individuals or organisations in their good work they may be seen as kind people. And yet, without knowing their behaviours behind the scenes, without being able to see the nature of their relationships with others, it is not possible to know how kind they really are. Same goes for us civilians without the profile of the famous.

The journey into and out of Central London each day provides so many opportunities to see kindness in action – both natural and self-conscious. I’m inclined to think more of the former, since people on a commute have no long-term need to demonstrate their kindness to others. Alternatively it may be easier to convince strangers of a different you than people who know you well. So perhaps the girl offering her seat to the pregnant lady is doing so precisely because it is a demonstrable kindness. It may also be a knee-jerk reaction borne of her kind nature.

I sit and I look for the tiny acts of kindness, whose being is as effortless as breathing. I look for someone kind.

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The kindness of strangers

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This morning we were a little early to the platform and my flatmate spotted a Puccino’s across the tracks. We threw each other a cheeky grin and tripped gaily to the coffee booth. However, when we got there I opened my wallet and realised I had no more than 50p on me, at the same time as my flatmate realised she had only just enough for her cup of tea. We’d already both put an order in so I cancelled my coffee as she said “We’ll share the tea…” taking time out for a few jokes about sucking at the tea bag and stealing extra milk.

A few seconds later the couple that had just left with their own drinks popped a hand back through the door holding a fiver, saying “Give the guys the change; everyone needs a coffee in the morning.”

I was stunned. My flatmate was stunned. The hand disappeared and we both sang out a thank you, amazed by such a random act of generosity.

Well, I bought the coffee and ran after the lovely couple to say thank you again, proffering my card with the words: “If you ever need anything recycled…” They both laughed and continued down the platform. The guys working at Puccino’s were delighted with the large tip, and all six of us involved in the experience had smiles on our faces.

My flatmate and I discussed the whole event at length making reference to Karma, Marcel Mauss, human capacity for kindness and ultimately what a lovely thing to have happened on an unseasonably cold Friday morning.

Writing here now though, I am made aware of the possibilities for community on a commute, or at stations along your commute. A coffee for a stranger and a tip for the baristas led to more goodwill than the same amount of money would have done in the cup of a beggar at Old Street station. I know this because I have often given my change to the various guys who sit at Exit 2, and apart from one occasion where a charming man called Antony introduced me to his dog, there is rarely a shared moment; if anything it emphasises the differences between us.

On the station this morning there was a shared understanding. The generous stranger’s words, “everyone needs a coffee in the morning” I guess made some kind of reference to our similar situation (both clearly earning, both making the trudge to work). It wasn’t charity, so much as a gesture of goodwill…

I don’t know. Maybe I should have said “oh no, give this money to charity” and not had my coffee. Or even say thank you, not had a coffee and then tried to choose between the 100,000 worthy charities in this country for a recipient of the cash. Except that this woman had chosen to use her money in this way. Would it have been rude of me to pass judgement on this and reject her kindness?

It is so easy as a “good Christian” to feel guilty about this, but I don’t believe that I need to. In relationships and in communities and in the wider society there needs to be a balance of give and take, there needs to be a dynamic. This morning my kind stranger recognised a fellow commuter in need of a coffee. I feel there’s a lot to learn from that.