My friend Nic Laing gave us this artwork; I called it “Prickly Planet”. Right now, I feel like one of the current risks (of which I realise there is an ever changing panoply), is a ‘prickly planet’, or at least a ‘prickly country’. People’s tempers are already rising; there are the people wanting to tell others what they should be doing (I realise I can all too easily fall into this camp), and the people reacting negatively to being told what to do (oh no, I fall into this camp too!). Jacinda Ardern manages to work ‘kindness’ into pretty much every speech she gives and I think she is entirely right and this reminder is entirely necessary. However, how do we carry it out at a time when most of us may be feeling at our most stressed and least kind?
When I started to think about kindness, and what I could write about its practice, here are some photos that immediately came into my mind.
That’s Dad, Mum and me in 1965. Probably everyone thinks their parents are kind, but I had the unfortunate experience of being told by other people how kind my parents were. Even worse, I was told that by their school pupils. I mean, what sort of school pupil extols the virtues of a teacher to the teacher’s child? My parents brought me and my brother up in a truly loving and caring way and practised kindness broadly in their lives. One time, Dad came home to find a burglar putting their silverware into a pillow case in their living room. He put on his best school teacher voice and said, “What the hell do you think you are doing?”. So when when Mum got home not long after, it was to find Dad and the burglar in the sitting room waiting for her return. Apparently the burglar had been told he was going to really get it when Mum came home, but as it turned out she just ended up making them all a cup of tea. They listened to the burglar’s story, they took him to the doctor for the stomach ulcer that was giving him grief, they bought him a bus ticket down south to pursue a job opportunity. My brother Rew recounted this story at Dad’s funeral. He said, “Now I’ve told that story before and had plenty of people say “Why didn’t he just call the police?” And I think that’s where Dad’s – and Mum’s – philosophy on life really makes itself known. Sometimes responding to an injustice with kindness rather than retribution can have a profound effect. We don’t always know what someone else has been through. The last thing they might need is another kick when they’re already down, a small act of compassion or generosity can have a more lasting impact than you would ever realise, and can literally turn lives around.”
This is a picture of my partner Chris and his daughter Sarah, my step-daughter. Chris is an intrinsically kind person, it is built into the fabric of his being. Sometimes that can be really damn frustrating when he wants to give away your essential cycling gear to some Tajik chappy he just met. But when you are getting to the bottom line, be that in the foreign wilds or in the wilds of a civil emergency, he’s exactly the sort of person you would like to have around. Sarah has inherited, learned from and built on Chris’s kindness as she has grown. When I need to figure out how to deal with or react to someone, particularly someone I am finding difficult, I think, ‘What would Sarah do?’.
In other words, for me to know what kindness might look like in practice, I think of the kind people I know and test my proposed actions against what they might do in the same circumstance (I would like to point out this is not a fail-safe strategy with the error all being on my part). I asked Chris what his thoughts about kindness in these times might be. His reply was to be kind about providing tough facts regarding this COVID-19 situation to people, and that the way to do that is lead people in gently. Jacinda Ardern certainly practices what she preaches in terms of kindness in that regard – I think we all really knew when she announced that we were at ‘Level 2’, that ‘Level 4’ was coming fast. However, she gave us some time to come to terms with the situation, in order to bring the populace along with her.
I have had some social media conversations, not my best ones, regarding the government modeling kindness. People told me that they think Jacinda’s reference to kindness is ‘namby-pamby’ behaviour, and that the government should focus on action, rather than feelings. I disagree, quite vehemently in fact. We have testing times now, and ahead of us, and we need leadership. Leadership isn’t only about action, it is also about uniting the people who you are leading, encouraging them to create a group, organisation or nation in which we all wish to participate, and modeling the behaviours that will lead us to that state. As we move into a brave new world, we need our health, we need our economy and we need our humanity – of which kindness to others is a cornerstone. Thank you Jacinda and all those other kind people out there, for being our role models and performing acts which are essential to our survival.