Is this your year for learning something fresh and transformative about kindness? Maybe you began the year with a long list of worthy things you ought to be doing: improving your mind as well as calming it; listening more appreciatively to your loved ones; making time for community, creativity, connection, fun – and some deep, uninterrupted sleep. And did I forget flossing?
Perhaps you long to learn something challenging that’s totally unrelated to your work? Or want to give more to a worthwhile cause? Maybe you are ready to offer help rather than criticism to a colleague who is struggling? Or perhaps you need just the smallest encouragement to cook dinner at home for friends who care much more about getting together than whatever you put on the table? Perhaps you would like to visit an art gallery and dream for an hour in front of a single painting? Or spend a day at home alone snacking on cheese and cherries while reading a truly transporting novel? (Among newish stay-in-bed-and-read books I can recommend Lori Lansens’ The Girls, Ann Patchett’s Run, The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt and Nigel Marsh’s funny and sneakily wise, Observations of a Very Short Man.)
Many of our wants and dreams are perfectly possible yet we so easily let them slip out of reach. This year I am jettisoning individual resolutions and am going for the biggest possible picture, putting 2008 forward as the Year of Everyday Kindness. A kinder life will always be a happier one. And it will make any small changes needed much more straightforward. Look closely again at the wish list above – or scribble a list of your own. I suspect you will see that almost everything other than the genius or ringmaster is strikingly close to hand. But rather than thinking about change in slave terms (I ought to, I should, I must…), your chances of success soar once you think much more broadly about kindness – and how a kinder attitude makes it so easy to see what you need to add and what you can certainly risk letting go.
Kindness will always be most powerful when you take it up as a fundamental attitude rather than as a series of individual acts: when you see it as cause and as effect. Then it is not a question of whether you can afford to be kind but whether you can afford not to be. I have written about kindness for years now, knowing how easily it’s misunderstood and trivialised. Cynicism, aggression, withholding are all often closer to hand. They delude many people into thinking that kindness is for the weak or needy even when the opposite is true. It takes strength to be consistently kind – and it develops strength. Meeting life with a poverty of spirit is horribly undermining. It leaches the life out of life. Conversely, it is utterly sustaining to know that even in tough times we can still trust our own capacity for kindness and remain honest about how absolutely dependent we ourselves are on the kindness of others.
Whether you are conscious of it or not, you have an awesome ability to increase other people’s joy, satisfaction and safety through acts of simple kindness. That power is worth everything. Kindness doesn’t mean surrendering your boundaries or meeting every demand that’s thrown your way. It can mean being clearer about what you want to say no, to, as well as when you want to say yes. Kindness pushes you to take other people into account constantly, yet by increasing your self-respect and contentment it also saves you from making a martyr of yourself. It drives connection, laughter, empathy and comfort. It is love in action. Big picture, small changes: a kinder year is possible. We will all benefit.
First published in a slightly different version in Good Weekend, 9 February 2008. copyright Stephanie Dowrick