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Why be kind anyway?

Stepping off the train, somewhere on London’s Central line recently, I noticed an advert asking the community of underground commuters to submit their stories of kindness on the Tube.

The request, I later discovered, comes from artist Michael Landy, a man determined to celebrate what he calls ‘everyday generosity and compassion on the Tube’ by collecting and sharing these tales of hope as works of art.

Here’s an example:

“I was going through a difficult time and I was crying on the train from Victoria to Clapham Junction. A girl offered me a tissue from a hand-made little cotton purse. Her grandmother made it especially for her to hold hankies. I couldn't tell her why I was crying or stop. But the care that purse was made with and the love it represents, somehow made things a little better.” (Anonymous)

The project got me thinking: What’s the point of kindness anyway?   What is the relationship between kindness and risk?  And, perhaps the most difficult question of all, is there still a place for random acts of kindness in a world where altruism tends to be treated with curiosity and suspicion?

In 2009, psychologist Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor published a book entitled, On Kindness.  Their key question: Why do we ‘generally see independent people as strong and charitable people as dumber or less developed’?  And how did we ‘get to a place in human history in which … we interpret small acts of random kindness as suspect – as a repressed need to be recognized, as a sign of an overly submissive nature, or even as a symptom of mental illness’? (Psychology Today)

Phillips and Taylor conclude that, in contrast to the Enlightenment view that we are all naturally greedy (Hobbes), there is, in fact, something out there called ‘kindness’ – a way of being that reaches beyond our self-obsession and embraces risk and vulnerability for the sake of others.

In short, the girl on the tube who took a moment to offer the stranger a tissue from her grandmother’s purse was taking a risk, making herself vulnerable and doing something intrinsically good and creative.

That makes sense to me.  

Far away, in another land across the sea, a group of people sat in a room and tried to come up with the top-10 reasons why people look beyond themselves and give (make donations) to schools.  I never once heard kindness mentioned.  But increasingly I’m convinced that people give because, in the end, its right – it's a risk, an act of generosity, that throws up new and creative opportunities for everyone involved.

So who will smile because of you tomorrow?