Monday, 20 April 2009

What is kindness and how does it show up in your life?

Did you know that in February there was a week dedicated to random acts of kindness? When I found out about this it made me think about what that meant and whether there was link to the richness of our lives. My reflections on it follow.

My initial thoughts were that it related to undertaking random acts of kindness for complete strangers. That reminded me of a recent exchange that I had with a woman in Sainsbury's car park. I had parked the car and was just going to buy my parking ticket when she approached me and offered me her ticket as she was on the verge of leaving. I was so grateful because with two children under three even doing the supermarket shopping turns into a bit of an expedition so anything that eases the process is welcomed with open arms. In conversation, it came up that this woman has made a commitment to commit some kind of act of kindness for another every day, which was inspiring. The whole experience lifted my spirits and gave me food for thought for the day. My daughter also commented on it by asking who the lady was and asking if she was a friend.

Such acts require little forethought because they represent a straight forward, quick transaction. However the end result is that both the giver and the receiver feel positive towards humanity. It also led me to inquire what other types of kindness exist and I thought about times in my life when I had been overwhelmed by people's kindness.
It is the rites of passage in our lives that seem to receive so much attention. The birth of my two daughters generated an enormous response from a wide range of people. Similarly key events such as moving house can have the same kind of reaction. It's as if people put aside their differences and rise to the occasion. It is wonderful as both events represent significant change: motherhood is often transformational; and it can take two years to settle in a new area. In both cases the process can be quite stressful.

What these first couple of examples of kindness share is that they represent a one off action. This led me to ponder about whether a commitment to long term acts of kindness could be found. These are more difficult to identify perhaps because they require us to stop and think about how we live and change the daily rhythms of our lives to incorporate them. For example taking time to include people especially those new to a play group or an area. The person with a new baby whether it is their first or a subsequent child, can struggle to adapt to the new rhythms of their life and appreciates any kindness/ support from those around them but is unlikely to ask for it directly. Yet being open to these opportunities and responding to them can lead us in a direction that is not expected at all. And perhaps this is what holds people back, an almost sub-conscious resistance to change!

I thought I would complete this article by offering an example of a sustained approach to kindness. A year ago a husband died leaving behind a wife, a two year old and a two month old baby. It was a huge loss in all sorts of ways. Some time after the funeral, when the initial response to the tragedy had died down, a new friend who was not close to the family arranged a dinner with three other friends to provide food and company for the widow at her house. This has continued to take place at regular intervals ever since. It now has a momentum of its own and has led to other joint activities. Yet it started because the friend did not know what else to do to help.

My challenge to you is to think about your life and see where you can reach out in kindness and who knows what unforeseen benefits will manifest themselves as a result.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

How busy are you?

It came to my attention through an article I was reading recently that there is a belief that the phrase Keeping busy? has replaced the more traditional greeting on meeting someone of how are you? Initially I was quite sceptical about this but then as often happens when something is brought to one's attention I noticed it more. In fact it was a bit of an epiphany for me because until that moment I had not realised how much it was part of common parlance. It got me thinking about the underlying assumptions of this change of usage.

Is it related to the Puritan work ethic which has so dominated our culture in the past? In the past that translated itself as every one had to earn their place in heaven. In today's language it seems to have come to mean that each of us has to earn our place in society through what we do. How many people do you know who gain their sense of self worth through what they contribute? There
are even those who spend time listing what they do with their time perhaps to prove that they are occupied in worthy pursuits. For others saying how busy they are is a polite way of avoiding offence – in other words they have been too busy to find time to see you as it is easier to put it that way rather than the more truthful I choose not spend my time with you.

Whatever the root cause it, it has had ramifications beyond the social worlds we inhabit and crept into our work environment. Although thinking about it, it was probably established in our working lives before infiltrating our social conscience, one only has to recall 1993 when the UK won an opt-out clause with regard to the implementation of a 48 hour working week. The latest talks on this issue to get rid of the opt-out clause within three years collapsed in April 2009. Closer to home, it is becoming increasingly the norm for employees to work through lunch. With this pattern, also follows an assumption and expectation from employers that staff will continue to do this unquestioningly. I wonder how healthy such an attitude is especially if we consider that we are human beings not human doings.

How about this for an idea? It sounds counter-intuitive because it swims against the current culture but why not give it a go. Put aside time each day when you just relax, focus on your breathing, perhaps do a structured meditation. See what happens over time – you may find you can fit more into your day; even that you become more creative. Avril Carson from the Happiness Project, subscribes to 30 minutes meditation daily and extends it to one hour when she is very busy. So here is my challenge to you – take some time out of each day to do nothing and see what happens.