This post is written by an anonymous contributor.
BBC Radio 4 has a magazine programme on Saturday mornings, hosted by ex-Communard and now the Reverend Richard Coles; it’s essential listening for me when I’m at home, and doubles as my backdrop to experimental cooking.
About 5 years ago, the programmed featured a slot precipitated by a listener who wanted to thank a stranger who had helped them in a moment of crisis. Since they had not even taken the person’s name, they thought they might reach them by telling the story, and saying thank you, on national radio.
Listening as I fiddled about with lavender ice-cream, I thought about such critical moments in my life; times when complete strangers offered help and kindness for no reason other than as a gift of humanity. I decided then that I would make an effort to ‘do’ a random act of kindness every day, that I would pay attention and act when I thought it would help. And so for the last 5 years, I have done this – sometimes with very small gestures and other times by doing something more significant.
For example, I was once at Paddington Station at 8.30am. It was rush hour into London, the station was packed with people, the entrance to the Tube had been closed because there were too many people on the platforms, and so there was a large crowd waiting to be allowed to go down. I was standing in the queue for the cash machine, and the woman in front of me had 2 large bags. She was about my age, with the kind of style I appreciate and can’t aspire to – a kind of relaxed, easy elegance in interesting clothes. As I admired her jacket, I noticed that her shoulders were moving very slightly and she was shaking. I put my hand on her arm, and as she turned, asked if she was alright. She was crying. I offered her a tissue and asked her if there was anything I could do. She said first that she was being silly, that she’d had a long journey, then arrived from Heathrow and her partner wasn’t at the station to meet her. I asked her where she’d come from. “Afghanistan” she said.
I asked her if she worked in humanitarian aid. She looked surprised and then really started to cry. I put my hand on her shoulder and listened while she talked about having had a difficult trip, and about being overwhelmed by the number of people in the station, and about being exhausted, and about wanting only to be at home. She was also crying at the prospect of going on the Tube with the million others waiting.
All of this was so familiar to me (I am the woman at the baggage carousel, leaking tears as my bag doesn’t come soon enough and wanting nothing more than to be home, immediately).
So I stayed with her, listened to her. We created together a visualisation of the rest of her morning to come; a long bath, clean pyjamas, a good cup of tea and then her own bed, in clean sheets. We talked about the protected silence of being in your own house, where no-one has a question for you, no-one is demanding to watch the football (loudly) in the shared team house, and no-one can make a claim on you.
By this time, we had reached the front of the queue. I offered to pay for a taxi home, so she would not need to go on the Tube. She said no, but that she was going to take a taxi anyway. And then said thank you, and we hugged, hard. I have no idea what her name was, or what organization she had been working for.
Other random acts of kindness have been less intense; I have chased my neighbour’s chickens down the street when they escaped while she was out, caught them, and then climbed over her fence with chickens tucked under my arm to return them to her garden. I have carried bags for women with children in airports, helped an elderly woman save £5 in the supermarket by getting own-brand ibuprofen instead of branded (she was so happy to have saved some money, she went off saying, “I’m going to buy a cake!”), parked someone’s car for them in a tight space, stayed with a young woman who was waiting for a lift and afraid to wait by herself, escorted 2 baby nuns from Bukavu through their first ever plane journey to Brussels and made sure they got on their connecting flight to Rome. I have called emergency services, provided tampons, paid for nappies.
Over the last 2 years, I have been furious, overwhelmed, and heartbroken at work; not only for the work, though this has been particularly demanding. I have felt betrayal and hostility from my organisation, which culminated in me leaving my job, along with many of my colleagues. Bad decisions, power struggles, incompetence, both overt and covert aggression from senior management, a culture of insecurity, deliberately confusing and contradictory information, and individual politicking in the midst of organisation-generated chaos took the ground out from under us. There was a tremendous amount of grief for what we were losing, and it stretched us all to our very limits.
This habit (for it has become a habit, now) of random acts of kindness has been a thread of sustenance; the moments of connection with unknown others, every day, have been beautiful. When organizational politics have left me flooded with adrenalin, toxic with fury and completely lost at how inhumane a humanitarian organisation can be; when I have been so offended by organisational practices that I could barely speak; when I have been trying to climb out of my skin because it has been unbearable, this habit has demanded that I pay attention to the world outside me. It brings the backdrop of my internal noise into focus. And then every day, something good happens – because I make it happen.
It is not hard, really, to be kind; pay attention, ask, act. That moment of human connection, however brief, reminds me that it is entirely possible to imagine a way of being that is kind. That it is entirely possible to live in ways that are based on generosity, on love. This has sustained me, and continues to sustain me.
There was such a huge response to the radio slot that it has now become a weekly feature, with 2 or 3 people ringing to tell a story and thank the person that helped them. There are so many random acts of kindness going on, all the time. I am floored by human kindness and, often, courage, and they make me feel hopeful while I am experimenting with kitchen chemistry, trying to make the perfect Portuguese custard tart.