Shock and Awe Kindness (Inspired by Kermit the Frog)

Dear Kindness Recruits,

In preparation for Wednesday’s 100 Days of Kindness mission, I must tell you something. Sometimes being kind is a bit like being green – it’s not always easy and people often give you very strange looks. But this only proves even more just how much the Kindness Revolution is a cause worth fighting for. We live in a crazy, mixed-up world and it’s up to kindness crusaders like us to remind people that it’s not all gloom and doom – that the world is also beautiful and meaningful and kindful. (Yes, sometimes I make up words, just go with it.)

As for me, my shock and awe campaign has already begun. I have upheld my end of the bargain and continued to really challenge myself with this week’s kindnesses. However, I am also discovering that the best, most rewarding kindnesses are not created but found. My advice to you would be to let your instincts guide you to find opportunities for kindness, because they truly are everywhere when you start looking.

On my 94th day of Kindness my mission presented itself at a shopping centre. I noticed a lady sitting on a bench. Not just any lady: possibly the loneliest lady I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t just her strange assortment of clothes or half-dyed hair or the fact that she was sitting by herself staring at nothing in particular or the way everyone gave her a wide berth as if she were about to spontaneously combust. It was something in her eyes, something totally defeated and lost and broken. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say, or even if she would respond to me when I did speak, but something told me I had to try.

I sat down next to her on the bench and noticed her outlandish shoes. Before I could chicken out I quickly heard myself saying, “Those are very interesting shoes.” There was a long pause, she slowly turned to look at me, obviously taken by surprise, and said, “Yes.” I thought perhaps that was the end of that. I couldn’t think how to go on from there. But then she began to talk. First about how she could only afford that one pair of shoes, then about every other aspect of her life, all of which were equally heartbreaking. I could feel people staring at us, knowing we must have seemed a very odd pairing (me still in my smart clothes from work, and her in the only clothes she owned). That made me annoyed to start with – she’s a human being like everyone else – but then I felt glad they were looking, as it meant I was making a strong point. I gave her advice when she asked for it, but mostly I just listened and tried to make her feel heard and understood. After about an hour the lady seemed to have grown tired of talking and we just sat for a little while. Eventually she turned to me and said, “Thankyou for listening to me. No one has paid any interest in me for such a long time. And just talking to you has made me think that there’s a chance things might turn out all right in the end.” Listening and acknowledging sure is a powerful thing.

On day 95 I faced one of my biggest kindness challenges: giving out flowers. I was viewing it as a major challenge purely from my previous experience – just thinking about that made my stomach turn itself in knots. And so I decided that rather than wait until Wednesday, I would dive right in and do it straight away. But this time I really thought things through to make sure it had every chance of being enjoyable. I recruited my awesome friend A to come along for moral support (and also because if people can see you have a friend who doesn’t think you’re crazy, then they’re less likely to think you’re crazy also.) Instead of handing out one bunch of flowers to one person, I handed out a whole lot of individual flowers to different people, thus taking some of the pressure off. I also generally approached people who were standing still or sitting down (at bus stops or in the park), not those who were walking by in a rush. And finally I tweaked the exact wording of my explanation to ensure that I got the words “free flower” and “kindness project” out in the first twenty seconds before the other person even spoke, because if I didn’t every single person’s instinctive reaction was to say no.

A happy flower recipient!

In the end, out of about twenty people, only three refused the flowers. Strange to think anyone would refuse to accept a little kindness in their life, but I did not take this personally, only thought it was their loss and moved on. It certainly helped to have A by my side reminding me what a positive thing I was doing, regardless of how people reacted. Of those that said yes, some of their responses were quite incredible – as A said, it “warms the cockles” and “brings a tear to the eye”. One lady informed us it was her birthday that day, another said she had been given the exact same flowers from her family during a really happy time and couldn’t describe how meaningful it was to her to recieve one again, and another lady said she was a big believer in random acts of kindness, that it took real bravery to do it for a whole year and that she was sure it would get much easier as I went along.

And it already is. On days 96 and 97 I bought a coffee for people at two new cafes in the middle of peak coffee hour in the centre of the city (so even the barista looked at me like I was Kermit the Frog). And it was only a single little baby butterfly that fluttered around in my stomach – rather than a whole butterfly family – as I explained to the baristas and the businessmen what I was doing and why. What did I care if they thought I was nuts, I don’t even work in the city so I am never going to see them again. And who knows, maybe later it will sink in somehow and they will see for themselves that random kindness is meaningful and important. And on day 98 I bought a sandwich for a homeless man who was not particularly grateful (making it clear he would prefer money instead), and I did not take that personally either. Just like when I was talking to the lonely lady, people stared at us in confusion as we spoke, and once again I was glad for it. If the man didn’t appreciate the kindness, at least people walking by might realise that “normal” people like “us” don’t have to walk by homeless people as if they don’t exist. Finally, somehow, I am starting to detach myself from the outcome of the kindnesses, and simply enjoy the journey, wherever it may lead me. Mission accomplished.

Lessons on Courage from a Mother and a Homeless Man

“Fear cannot take what you do not give it.” ~ Christopher Coan

Fear is something that we all experience, in some form, every single day. Fear of failure, rejection, pain, loss … Just the thought of these worst case scenarios can be completely paralysing. This week on my kindness journey I met two people whose everyday realities would be many people’s worst fear. But rather than giving up or dwelling on the negative they chose to respond with courage and even gratitude.

For my 92nd day of kindness I donated blood. At the blood bank a middle-aged lady sat next to me sitting back with eyes closed, headphones in and a smile on her face. I admired how calm and content she seemed. I don’t have a problem with needles and I feel very positive about donating, but I still don’t enjoy the experience enough to be smiling about it! When the nurse came over to check on the lady, she took out her headphones, breathed deeply and said, “I’m okay as I keep listening to the music.” The nurse enquired what she was listening to and she said it was her son’s favourite band. It helped her to overcome her fear of needles and think instead about her teenage son, who was seriously ill and relied on blood transfusions to stay alive – surely one of the worst fears for any mother. She said she regretted letting her fear stop her from donating before he became ill but a positve side to his illness was that it had given her the determination to help others now.

The nurse nodded knowingly – I suppose she hears those kinds of stories every day. But I certainly don’t. I wanted to tell the lady that she was amazingly courageous. That her story was incredibly touching. That she had just made me really, truly realise how important this all was. But before I could say anything at all she had put her headphones back in, closed her eyes and begun to smile again. And just imagine, for eight minutes of our time and a little bit of discomfort we could all be giving three more people the happiness of knowing their loved one has a second chance at life.

On my 93rd day of kindness I experienced another story of facing fears that will stick with me for a long time to come. I decided it was the day to give away $10 to a stranger. While walking through the city I decided I would smile and say hello to people, and maybe the right person would present themselves. This resulted in having a lovely chat with an elderly gentleman about what he felt were the keys to a happy life: a good attitude and a good night’s sleep. I also said hello to a couple from Florida and offered to take a photo of them in front of the Opera House. They said they thought Sydney was the most beautiful city in the world and the people were “just super dooper friendly”. No arguments here.

Continuing my walk I noticed a homeless man sitting on the footpath, holding a sign simply saying “Please help me”. His head was bent so slow it was almost touching the ground as a constant stream of people rushed by, not a single one acknowledging he was there. I hesitated. Would he accept food rather than money? What could I do to make him feel validated and respected? What could I say to him to find common ground, and not sound condescending? As I approached it was clear it had been a long time since anyone had taken the time to look him in the eye and say hello, and he was beyond grateful when I did.

It turned out I needn’t have worried about what to say, simply demonstrating I was open to conversation was enough. He told me his story from before he lived on the streets – he had lost his job and then been kicked out by his wife. He did not blame his boss or his wife, because he took the job and the marriage for granted and this was the consequence. After I had bought him a sandwich, coffee and newspaper (for around $10) he then told me his terrifying reality – he had to sleep during the day and stay awake during the night for fear of being set on fire, as had already happened to him three times. So it was not possible for him to get a good night’s sleep, but he certainly had an astoundingly positive attitude. He was determined to get his life back, he was saving little by little and told me with a smile, “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ I get off the streets, it’s ‘when’.”

Gratitude is the first lesson: to never take for granted when our loved ones are healthy and well, when we live in a place that is safe and beautiful, when we have a job, a home and people that love and support us even when we make mistakes. But beyond this, the second lesson is choice: we cannot stop things falling apart, and most of the time we cannot even stop ourselves fearing that things might fall apart in the future. But we can choose to feel the fear, and keep smiling anyway.

Living Above the Line

Days 42-45: When I was eleven years old I was lucky enough to take three months off school to travel around the world. I vividly recall my mother telling me, “Travelling will teach you far more about life than school ever could” – perhaps the greatest piece of wisdom I have ever recieved. Highlights included a visit Disneyland in California, seeing our family castle in Scotland and swimming with dolphins in Hawaii. But the place that had the most lasting impact was Zimbabwe, which brought on the biggest sense of culture shock I have ever felt. It was overflowing with spectacular scenery and wildlife. It was also the first time I had experienced a third-world country, seen slums the size of cities, people sleeping in the gutter and tiny children with no legs.

Upon returning home I was overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude at having clean water running from our taps, a comfortable place to sleep that was free of bed bugs, and a huge range of fresh fruit and vegetables to consume. I felt incredibly lucky to have been born in Australia, where I did not have to deal with the hardships of poverty and homelessness. It was not until later that I understood that these issues are not confined to one single country or even one continent – poverty does not discriminate. There are 1.4 billion people all over the world living beneath the poverty line, both in third-world countries and (literally) on our doorstep.

But as always it is not all bad news and there are things we can individually do to bring about positive change. This is Live Below the Line week, and over six thousand Australians are taking up the challenge to live on $2 a day in order to raise money and increase awareness of extreme poverty. I thought long and hard about joining this project, but eventually decided that considering how crazy I get when I’m deprived of food, sending a hungry, grumpy and jittery Cat out into the world wouldn’t really be a kindness to anyone. I feel incredibly grateful to be able to make this choice when so many have it forced upon them. So instead my kindness is to donate money to my friend Renee Carr who is not only participating in the challenge but also helped get the campaign up and running.

And it certainly seems to be a great success so far. Yesterday I overheard some handymen talking about how hungry they were on the challenge. I decided to put a bunch of coins in a nearby vending machine and then told them to go and check it as I thought it might be broken. I was intending to leave before they found the money but they were too quick and one of them very kindly called to me to say it was working and I had left money in it. I told him it was a bonus for being brave enough to Live Below the Line. He seemed very pleasantly surprised about that. I have also given money to every homeless person I have encountered, and am helping to organise a group of people to get together and give food to homeless one day soon.

Whether or not you are able to participate or donate to this cause, its a good week to realise how lucky we are to have homes, clean water, healthy bodies, an abundance of food and all the other amazing things that come with a life above the line. Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could pull those 1.4 billion people up here in our lifetime too?

Find a Penny

 

Days 20-23: About a year ago my beautiful friend R sent me a care package from America with a penny encased in a little bag and the words “Find a penny pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck.” I still have it on my wall. While we don’t have pennies in Austalia anymore, like many Americanisms this saying is well-known here. As with kindness, money is something that everyone would like more of, and finding it is probably considered good luck in any culture. When I found some money this week, it provided a very spontaneous opportunity for discovering whether it is possible to be kind to others while taking full advantage of luck for yourself.

Anzac Day is a public holiday in Australia, a day when we remember all the Australian and New Zealand soldiers that have served and died in war. I decided a simple way to be kind on Anzac Day would be to donate some money to Legacy, an organisation caring for families of deceased war veterans, which I did. However, for many Australians the best way to remember the diggers is having a beer (or ten) in their honour and playing two-up. I’m pretty sure they would approve. Two-up is a traditional game in which you bet on whether two coins (normally pennies, funnily enough) will be flipped heads or tails. My friends and I take part in this crazy ritual every year, and though I never win any money it is a lot of fun. This particular Anzac Day while I was waiting at the bar in a very busy pub, the man beside me dropped some money. I think he was a few beers past remembering his own name, let alone noticing he was $10 short, but I tapped him on the shoulder and returned the money, to his absolute amazement. Perhaps some people would have considered it lucky, or good karma, that they had found the money, and been ‘kind’ to themselves by simply pocketing it since he would never be any the wiser. But make of this what you will: almost immediately afterwards I headed back out to the two-up ring and preceded to win almost three times as much money as I had just returned to the man at the bar. I didn’t even think of it at the time, but later I wondered if I had kept that man’s money for myself, would I have still won?

Over the last few days I also cleaned out my closet and donated a big bag of clothes to St Vincent de Paul (a charity helping people overcome poverty and disadvantage). And I bought a coffee for the lady standing in line behind me, who was appreciative but not overly surprised, as though random acts of kindness made perfect sense within her positive world-perspective. She commented that she would certainly have to pay it forward to someone else, and then finally asked me why I wanted to do something nice (normally the first question people ask, repeatedly.) Before I could answer the barista said: “That’s just what she does. Every single day she is kind.” I don’t know why exactly, but as I walked away with my coffee my smile couldn’t have been much wider.