Is This Progress?

“It’s a funny thing that medicine and science and technology have come so far, but people haven’t progressed.”

We like to think that as a species humans are forever moving forward onto bigger and better and faster and smarter things. We stand on the shoulders of giants and create iphones and clone animals and invent cars that park themselves. We are forever acquiring new information, ideas and solutions to problems we didn’t even know we had. We are progressing. Of course we are. Right?

Well, if you ask Faye, someone well into her nineties who has lived through some of the toughest times in human history, it all depends on your definition of progress. I first met Faye about a month ago for my 100th Kindness mission to visit someone in hospital who doesn’t get many visitors. It was an incredibly moving experience meeting her and hearing her stories. She was overwhelmed with emotion at the thought of someone taking the time to visit her and bring her flowers. And over the weekend I was able to track her down again after much confusion, calling around and getting lost (the hospital told me she was at the retirement home who told me she was at the hospital …) It was wonderful to see her again, to share a cup of tea and her
favourite pecan pie and talk about everything and anything. She was so grateful that I had come to visit again and I said I would love to visit her regularly if she would like me to. Faye said that since she had never had a granddaughter and I was missing my grandmother, it surely wasn’t a coincidence that we had met each other.

She is a beautiful, warm, positive person, endlessly upbeat and uncomplaining despite the many hardships she has faced and many ailments that make life difficult. And yet, on the topic of the world today (and tomorrow) she could find little to be hopeful about. She shook her head as she talked about the madness she saw on the evening news. She couldn’t help but think that humanity itself was going backwards at a rapid rate, because in general people don’t look after one another anymore and everybody seems so angry and so violent. She pointed out the irony that “medicine and science and technology have come so far, but people haven’t progressed.”

I wanted to dispute her, of course. I wanted to tell her that it’s not just the minority that are progressing, thatmost people are becoming better and more enlightened and more compassionate. But as I was trying to pull together some kind of argument for this it struck me like an avalanche: I don’t have one. What words could possibly lessen the evils of riots and dictatorships and war that are going on right now? There is nothing anyone can say or do to take away the horror and inhumanity of what goes on in our world every single minute of every single day.

I could not give her any real evidence of the goodness in the world, all I could tell her was what I believe. I believe there is just as much good in the world as bad, we just don’t hear about it because it is not
considered newsworthy. I believe that in the same heartbeat as all the death and destruction and fear and hatred there is also equal amounts of selflessness and compassion and kindness and love. But I don’t know this, I have no real evidence that is true; I only hope with my whole heart that it is. But as much as my heart had been lifted by seeing her, as I left Faye shuffling slowly back to her hospital bed to eat her tasteless hospital dinner with scenes of chaos on the muted television that could have been any number of countries I felt my heart sink. There was the avalanche of heavy realisation again – what possible goodness could even come close to counter balancing all the bad in the world?

And then there was this: today as I pulled my car into the driveway at work, a man walking by stopped and moved the garbage bins out of my way, giving a nod and a wave before continuing down the street. Later, it began to rain as I walked to the shops and I saw a lady stranded without an umbrella. I offered to share mine, to which she gratefully accepted and said she had done the same thing for someone else the day before. Then while I walked her home another man ran past us at top speed – I assumed he was running for the bus which was just about to pull away – only to race over to help a mother who was struggling to lift a pram up some stairs. He then walked over to the bus stop and stood to wait for the next one with a small smile on his face. These moments were not anywhere near as big as the catastrophes that were occuring at the exact same time in some other parts of the world. Yet they contained tiny little seeds of hope that restore some balance between those heartbreaking news stories and the innate goodness of people. I will certainly be sharing these small kindnesses with Faye next time I see her.

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100 Days, 100 Kindnesses

For my 100th kindness I wanted to do something really meaningful, something I had never done before and something that would take me totally outside my comfort zone. Wanting to take part in the 100th Day of Kindness challenge, my Mum volunteered to help me with my act of kindness for the day. After much discussion and some dead-end ideas, I stopped for a moment and really thought about it. I know that the best kindnesses come naturally, and you just have to trust your instincts. The idea that has kept coming back to me this week whenever I think of people in need of kindness was the hospital. And since I had promised myself (and all of you) that I would give away flowers on my 100th day, I decided we should find a patient who didn’t get many visitors and would really appreciate a bunch of flowers. This was a big ask. I had no idea how we would go about this, but I told myself if it was the right kindness it would all happen fairly easily. And it did.

Mum called a friend of hers who works in a nearby hospital and explained the whole crazy 100 Days of a Year of Kindness situation (that would have been an interesting conversation). And almost immediately she gave us the name and room number of a lady who got hardly any visitors. Strangely enough, she was in the same ward as my beautiful Grandmother had been in before she died, just down the hall in fact. I decided this was a good sign. We arrived at the hospital, flowers in hand, and explained to the nurses what we wanted to do. As we walked to her room I asked Mum if she felt nervous, she insisted she did not but then promptly told me, “You do the talking, I don’t know what to say.”

We stepped inside and I introduced us and explained our mission, and so it was that I came to spend an hour with one of the most lovely, positive, warm-hearted people I’ve ever met. Someone that instantly reminded me of my own grandmother, whose generosity and love instilled in me the value of being compassionate and kind. I knew instantly that my instincts had been right on this one. And she certainly was incredibly grateful and deserving of kindness. She told us she did not get many visitors because her family lived far away and “at my age, you don’t have many friends left anymore”. Although she was a regular at the hospital and often stayed for periods of up to two months, she had never (never!) recieved a bunch of flowers. She told us that every day the hospital flower lady came around and every day she had to tell her there were no flowers for her to put in a vase – “Until today! Today she will come in and I can say, surprise, yes I do have some!”

She was extremely interested in my kindness project (or what she called “Make a wish come true project”), and wholeheartedly agreed that everyone needed a little more kindness in their life. She told us about her children and grandchildren and about living through a war and a depression. We learned that she was in extreme pain most of the time and found it hard to walk. She had experienced a lot of sadness in her life, but whenever the conversation veered too much to the negative she would bring it back to the flowers, about how she just couldn’t believe it, she was just so delighted, it was the best surprise she’d ever had and she would remember it forever.

I tried to explain to her that I was incredibly grateful to have met her, that I too would remember her always, that her story and her positivity despite all odds resonated far deeper than could be explained. I think she thought I was just being nice, but it is all true. And I didn’t say it at the time but I would like to visit her again, to talk to her more about her life over a cup of tea and her favourite pecan pie. I hope I can make that happen.

As we left the hospital I thought of the homeless man I had spoken to last week, and the lonely lady I met the other day. Despite their differences, they all wanted the same thing: to feel listened to and validated. It’s not about the flowers, or the sandwich, or the compliment, it’s just about listening and caring, and thats something we can all do.