The Kindness of Strangers—the Ripple Effect of Compassion
Small acts of kindness can have a big impact on others and our own state of mind
Posted May 17, 2015
I recently returned from Burma, the country they now call Myanmar. I made the trip in part to explore my family history; my mother was born in Yangon and spent her young girlhood in the hills near Mandalay, and, when the Japanese invaded in 1941, my grandmother, my mother and my mother’s two siblings fled across the hills to India. My grandfather stayed—he was in the army—but was killed by a bomb a few weeks later.
For many decades since the country has been ruled by a military junta and closed to visitors, so my mother has never been able to return to the land of her birth. Recently it’s been easier to travel to and from Myanmar, but because my mother is 81 and too frail to make the journey herself, whilst I was there I wanted to find my grandfather’s grave in the hopes I would be able to tell her about it on my return.
Thanks to two very helpful local guides and maps sent by relatives I managed to do so, and it meant a lot to me that I was able to tell my mum that her father is buried in a very beautifully kept war cemetery with flowers growing between each of the soldier’s graves. A small tribute maybe, but one that's important to us.
Good deeds beget more good deeds
That the locals have looked after and honoured my grandfather connects with a broader observation I made whilst in Myanmar; I was struck by the joy and kindness of the Burmese people. It led me to wonder if this might be connected to the fact that Myanmar has the highest percentage of Buddhist people in the world, and that perhaps Buddhism might have much to teach us here in the more secular, consumerist west: it focuses so firmly on the idea of doing good deeds and of good deeds begetting more good deeds, so it encourages each man and woman to be kind to others.
As I write, I’m aware there are still rebels fighting in the north of Myanmar against the military for their freedom, and the southern-based Muslim Rohinga remain horribly persecuted. Nonetheless, in Manderlay and Yangon my husband and I saw this kindness in evidence in many ways: in the temples, on the streets, amongst ordinary people.
Since we returned, this sense that even our smallest actions can have a big impact has continued to resonate. So when I was invited by an online bookgroup to devise a competition, it seemed only fitting to ask entrants to share their own experiences of the kindness of strangers in return for the chance to win a signed copy of my latest novel, which is about strangers helping one another. Here are a few that I found particularly touching.
The kindness of strangers
‘About 10 years ago my partner and I rented a country cottage in a small Yorkshire village for Christmas, and on Christmas Eve there was a massive storm which caused a power cut. We lit the coal fire and the candles and that night it was quite cosy, but when morning dawned, the power was still off and we had no way to cook our Christmas dinner—we couldn't even make a cup of tea! We were feeling very glum and sorry for ourselves when there was a knock on the door. I opened it and there was a young man on the doorstep brandishing a flask of coffee. He said he lived opposite, and his mum had sent him over to ask us to join them for Christmas dinner cooked on their gas-fired Aga. They knew ours was a rental cottage and had seen the candlelight flickering, guessed we were on holiday and opened their home to us. It was one of our best ever Christmases—spent with total strangers with hearts of gold.’ Janet Lambert'When my children were very small, my husband and I were planning to move to a new area and I was house hunting on my own as he couldn't get the time off work. I had two toddlers and a new baby and I needed to feed the little one, so I stopped at a Little Chef and went in. I asked the woman behind the counter if they could heat some milk for me, but was told it was against their regulations. I sat down anyway, with a by-now-howling baby, and my other children whining as they also wanted food...
'Then, one by one, other customers bought over their tea pots. They’d obviously noticed how distressed I was that I couldn't get any milk warmed, so together they made a circle around the bottle. The teapots did the trick and warmed the milk enough for me to feed my daughter. Later that afternoon, I found the perfect house for us and we moved to Shropshire a couple of months later. We've now been here over thirteen years, and, yes, the people are still just as lovely as they were that day in the café.' Emma DaviesSource: Sarah Rayner
'I was at a New Year’s Eve party in the local pub, and I noticed this women looking at me. She continued staring all evening, and when I got up to leave, she approached me. ‘I want to say a big, big thank you to you,’ she said, ‘You saved my life 20 years ago.’ I said,‘I am sorry, but I think you have the wrong person...’ ‘No.’ she said. ‘20 years ago my husband left me, and I was in a terrible state of mind, suicidal, really, and I came in to your shop—'I run a newsagent, so at this point I knew it must have been me after all ‘—and we got chatting. What you said to me had a big impact, and although I was a long time getting over what happened, your words stopped me taking my life.’ Unfortunately, I will never know what it was I'd said, as the taxi driver came to hurry me as he'd been waiting. Nonetheless, now it’s turned out her story has had a big impact on me, as I have never forgotten her thanks, and it’s made me realize what a difference a few words can make.’ Ann Isabella Clucas
The value of being kind extends to our own psyches too
The idea of kindness begetting kindness echoes what happens in the online support group I help run for people suffering from anxiety too—members are kind to one another, offering a safe place to be heard, share experiences and ask advice: we make friends with others with anxiety and thus feel, hopefully, less worried ourselves.
I've also found that being kind is a useful approach to take to my own anxiety; if I am 'kind' to it and myself, it generates a cycle of positivity. This is the thinking behind my little self help book on anxiety, which explains that if we 'make friends' with anxiety, we will increase compassion for ourselves, whereas if we battle anxiety and get angry with it, it will spawn panic and grow.
Living a life that matters
Finally, last week I was at the funeral of a friend when the following tribute was read:
What will matter is not what you bought, but what you built; not what you got, but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success, but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned, but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage or sacrifice that enriched, empowered or encouraged others.
What will matter is not your competence, but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew, but how many will feel a lasting loss when you're gone.
What will matter is not your memories, but the memories that live in those who loved you.
These words are an excerpt from 'A Life that Matters'; yet again they underline how small acts can have a big impact. In my friend’s case, there are entirely apt; she was brilliant teacher, loving wife and mum and a great friend; her joie de vivre touched hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
So, as this is the last of my blogs to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, I’d like to leave you, dear readers, with a suggestion that perhaps it might be worth more of us adopting a kinder approach ourselves and others—and I say that to encourage myself as much as anyone. After all, this notion of what makes a good life isn't complicated. Part of what makes it possible to grasp is its simplicity.
If we do bad deeds, they generate further bad deeds, which can then spread suffering and misery far and wide like the multiple explosions of a cluster bomb. But kindness begets more kindness and spreads warmth, like the sun.