Being Kind

When I was giving birth to Ellie, my midwife was Jenny.

Jenny was no-nonsense and very practical, and had steely eyes and gentle hands.  Faced with my very vocal conviction that I could, simply, not give birth anymore and I’d appreciate it if she’d cancel all proceedings (a polite way of saying I was hanging off the side of the bed sounding bovine and increasingly desperate), Jenny knelt down beside me and said “Anna, labour is hideous, that’s why it’s called labour.  No-one is getting this baby out but you.  You can do it, and you will do it”.  And then she calmly stood up and went to the other end of the room whilst I processed that unfortunate information.

Jenny had the measure of me and she knew I didn’t need tea and sympathy.  Jenny’s kindness came from tough love.

*****

When my great Aunty Barbara was alive, she told me she was lonely.  Not in a way that sought sympathy, she  was tough as old boots.  She just matter-of-factly informed me that since her husband of 69 years had died, of course she missed the company.  ”Radio 4 just isn’t the same”.

So together, we picked out a rescue cat.  I’d just started a new job, and bought the cat as a gift.  I remember feeling proud that I’d earned money that could bring someone else comfort.

I’d envisaged a fluffy moggy who’d sit on Barbara’s lap and watch the news with her, rubbing her face against Barbara’s arm, mewling gently.  Instead, “Puss” was a black-haired tyrant who roamed Barbara’s garden and arched his back and circled and hissed at her whenever she dared venture out.  Of course, Barbara loved this and rose to the challenge admirably, hissing back at Puss and waving her trowl threateningly.  Barbara and Puss loved each other because they gave each other space, because they respected each other, because they looked out for each other, because having each other stopped them being lonely.

I should have suspected something wasn’t right when I saw the vet bills that Barbara had been paying, piled up on her desk.  ”Oh he’s an old cat.  Old cats require a bit more maintenance” she’d say, airily.

I was on a train, I don’t remember where it was going.  Barbara called me and I couldn’t hear what she was saying through her tears.  The vet had discovered a shard of lead in Puss’s brain, from when he was mistreated when he was a kitten.  He’d had to be put down.

For a really long time I felt wretched, like I’d brought more grief into Barbara’s world.  A few weeks before she died, I told her that.  She looked at me askance.  ”You do have some funny ideas, dear.  That cat brought me happiness.  Your kindness brought me happiness.  Kindness doesn’t always have to end well.”

*****

I signed myself out early from hospital.  Maternity wards are a similar temperature to that of the core of the Earth, and contain lots of women with grey faces shuffling around at 4am looking totally bemused, holding newborns. I couldn’t face more than one night there.

Unfortunately Mr K was at work the next day (for reasons beyond his control) and so my first day at home with the baby involved me not really able to move, holding a baby, learning how to breastfeed.  I wouldn’t say I was overwhelmed, but I was pretty close.  I didn’t know enough about babies to be confident of putting her down anywhere, I’d slept for four hours in five days, my critical reasoning and resilience were subsequently non-existent and if I sat down I couldn’t get back up without wanting to cry because of the scar.  And the thing that really got to me, ridiculously, was that the house was an absolute tip, and I didn’t have any hands free to do any washing or cleaning. So I just sat there, staring at the mess, holding Ellie, thinking “is this what it’s going to be like?”.

There was a knock on the door.  It was my neighbour, who has a 4-year-old boy, and is a GP, and is possibly the kindest person I’ll ever meet in my life.  She took one look at me, assessed the situation, made me a cup of tea, put the washing on, helped clear away the worst of the mess, helped me position Ellie so I could feed her more easily, talked to me, made me another tea.  She took one look in the fridge and one swift phone call later, her husband dropped by with the greatest lunch I’ve ever eaten (cheese and Worcester sauce on toast).  She left me feeling brighter, and as though I could do this.  And then she dropped round that evening with dinner for me and Mr K.  And she kept dropping round, never obtrusively, just to do the small things, until we were on our feet and we knew what we were doing that little bit more.

She’d been there before.  Her kindness came from empathy.

*****

When I was eight years old, my sister came running up to me one evening before bedtime.  ”I’ve got a surprise for you!” she exclaimed.  ”It’s in the bathroom”.

Excited, I ran into the bathroom. She’d put toothpaste on my toothbrush for me.

“That’s a RUBBISH surprise”, I told her.  Her face crumpled.

It’s a running joke between us now, but I have thought about that, and how awful that made me feel, my whole life.  I try to never, ever dismiss anyone’s kindness.  Toothpaste on a toothbrush isn’t the best example, but the lesson rings true.  You don’t know what someone’s kindness has cost them.

*****

I remember a long time ago, when someone very close to my husband died.  One morning shortly afterwards, he said to me “you’d go without.  So would she.”

I asked him what he meant.  He has a theory.  You get given a box of chocolates as a gift.  They’re good chocolates, ones you love.  You offer the chocolates around.  It soon becomes apparent there aren’t enough chocolates to go around, and if you keep offering, you’ll go without.

“Some people”, he said, “will keep a chocolate for themselves, because it’s their box, their gift.  She wouldn’t have.  She’d have given away her last without a second thought”

I think about that theory a lot.  There are people who keep something back for themselves, and people who instinctively go all out, who don’t even think of what they’re doing as kindness.  It’s just what they’ve learned to do.  To write and send a card when someone is going through a hard time.  To give someone a hug.  To  give up what they want to make someone else happier.  Acts of kindness big and small.  Sacrifices of the heart, or just letting some else know they are not alone.

Kindness should be everyone’s default setting, but it’s not.  I wonder why some people have it naturally, some have to work at it, and some don’t bother with it at all.  I’m pretty sure we aren’t born with inherent kindness, I’m pretty sure we’re taught it.

Sometimes it takes a great deal of effort, but I’ve never heard anyone say they regret being kind.

Categories: Life Experience, Written By Anna
34 interesting thoughts on this

34 Comments

  1. Katielase
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    Well obviously I love this, although I absolutely cried over Puss. I firmly believe kindness can change the world, and that our society very much does not encourage it. Kindness and empathy are the things that help us understand.

    I consider my greatest strength to be my kindness. I know where it came from, too, it came from a woman who would and has gone without hundreds of times, even at times when she deserves the goddamn chocolate more than anyone I know. I learnt kindness from my Mum and it’s the one thing I truly hope I teach my daughter.

    KL xx

    PS: Your neighbour is amazing. I want to move next door to her.

    • Katielase
      Posted April 9, 2014 at 7:28 am | Permalink

      I had to come back to say the one person my Mum isn’t always kind to is herself. I’m not always kind to myself either, and I bet you aren’t either, Anna or any of you, so that’s the other thing… be kind to YOURSELF. You’re bleeding marvellous, you deserve it.

      KL xx

      • ChirstyMac
        Posted April 9, 2014 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        Everything Anna said. But also this. ESPECIALLY this.

        I am guilty an offender as any of us, but we need to be kinder to ourselves. Not in a keep-the-last-chocolate way, or at the expense of the kindness we show others, but in a way that recognises we deserve kindness too. X

  2. Morwenna
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Often I’ve heard people saying that empathy/kindest/’going without’ is a sign of weakness – that you need to be selfish, to some extent, to get anywhere in life. I can’t disagree with this more. I think sometimes it shows incredible strength of character to be kind, especially when it appears to come naturally. I too am lucky to witness real kindest from my parents and admire them greatly.

  3. Fee
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Anna, this made me cry. I love your beautiful drivel posts.

    My life has been powered by kindness for the last couple of years, it has come from so many people at so many different times.

    I know try to be the person who sends a card, remembers important anniversaries (especially the sad ones) and go out of my way to be kind to people. Because really, what could you do that is more important than that? I hope I am making a difference in some small way.

    P.s. You know you have been that kind person to me a few times since M was born right? What’s app kindness TOTALLY counts.

    • Posted April 9, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      AOW people keep going on about Whats App and I’ve no idea what it is! *makes note to Google it later*

  4. Rach M
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Another wonderful post. I always try to be kind but it really hit me starting out on the year in Hong Kong, just how valuable kindness is. I didn’t know anyone and I was having a hard time starting work and settling in and having all sorts of doubts. One of my new colleagues Jenny was so kind to me through little things she did that first day, that it made a difference to my outlook on the whole year and experience abroad. I’d always tried hard to be kind to new starters at work in the past, and I was so glad I had. You never know what your kindness means to other people. Great post x

    • Posted April 19, 2014 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      Yes – this! I left a very wonderful, reassuring, utterly lovely group of mum friends when we relocated, and was worried about making new mum friends. But very quickly someone had made a bee line for me at a baby group and taken me under their wing. I will never forget her kindness and I keep trying to do the same for others.

  5. Posted April 9, 2014 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I think kindness is appreciated the most by those who take time to be kind themselves, but, as KL said, not always to themselves. That’s why we are here. To help each other.

    I often wonder what my little boy will grow up to be like. Kindness is the big one for me. I hope we can teach him that.

    Px

    • Posted April 19, 2014 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      SO TRUE PENNY.
      I really appreciate kindness, and I often try and replicate for others, what others have done for me. Does that make sense?

  6. Liz
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Anna, as ever, your writing is beautiful and so thought-provoking.

    However, when I finished reading this I was left feeling not so good about myself; that maybe I’m not as kind as I thought I was. I think I’m the person who would look around calculate that I wouldn’t get the chocolates if I offered them around and decide not to share. Does that make me an unkind person? I don’t know. I now feel quite confused.

    • Fee
      Posted April 9, 2014 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      My little sister is the kindest person in the world to the point where she far too frequently goes without to help others. Sometimes I really wish she would keep the chocolate for herself!

      I don’t think it makes you unkind at all – if I kept it or not would depend what mood I’m in, ha! Xxx

    • Posted April 9, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      Liz – I felt like this too. I’m like Joey, I don’t share food. I got really cross with James last night because he’d been eating some chocolates I got for my birthday without asking. I’ve also had to do a lot of work recently to ensure that beliefs in things such as karma don’t fuel my anxiety “if bad things happen it’s because I’m a bad person” etc. This thought spiral has been really harmful to me and as such I’ve had to try and ‘own’ putting myself and my own needs first. It’s really NOT a bad thing to do.

      • Posted April 9, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        I don’t share very well, either. The only time we had a desert to share, Corey was bemused at the accuracy of my measuring to make sure that we each got EXACTLY the same amount. I do pass my chocolates around, but only after I’ve taken a selection. I’ve wondered before if that makes me selfish, but then remember that I’m generous with other things, time being the biggest. You can’t have my chocolate, but I will sit up all night and listen to you if you need it.

    • Posted April 9, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      Liz, I’m so glad you wrote this as I was thinking something similar as I was reading this post. I spend a huge proportion of my working day being what I call ‘professionally kind’ and make a big effort to go above and beyond the call of duty. What this means, is that when I leave work, my store of milk-of-human-kindness is often severely depleted. Sometimes I do genuinely feel as though it’s a finite store, not a never-ending store which is how I should feel. And yes, I would feel deprived if I missed out on the last chocolate.

      I’ve always thought of myself as a kind person, but not sure I’m kind *enough*. Today AOW feels like a life lesson. Must. Try. Harder.

      On a separate note, I absolutely LOVE Barbara’s line ‘Your kindness brought me happiness. Kindness doesn’t always have to end well.’ So true. As always Anna K, your way with words is just the best.

      • Posted April 9, 2014 at 10:30 am | Permalink

        Anita, you really, really ARE a kind enough person! There is no way on earth I could do what you do.

      • Posted April 9, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        I second Amy. Doing what you do all day is exhausting, but you are still incredibly kind. Maybe not in the same way you are with your patients, but kidness takes many different forms.

      • Posted April 9, 2014 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

        Oh Anita, I have to say – it is such a massive relief to hear someone else say that! I sometimes feel a bit like I have run out of positivity and persuasion and giving by the end of the day too!

      • Liz
        Posted April 9, 2014 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

        Anita, what you’ve written is exactly how I was feeling when I wrote my comment.
        I’m sure we probably both are plenty kind enough in reality.
        xx

        • Posted April 10, 2014 at 9:59 am | Permalink

          Exactly Liz. We need to be kind to ourselves about being kind!!

    • Posted April 9, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      *joins the chocolate calculators* I’d probably have eaten mine first before the box even made it out into the room just in case someone else took the strawberry cream. But only really where food is concerned, any other analogy and I probably wouldn’t have come across quite so sneaky.

      I love seeing the smile on someone’s face when you do something out of the blue for them. Just a little something. It truly is the little things that matter. xx

    • Katielase
      Posted April 9, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      I think this is what I meant when I said it’s also important to be kind to yourself. Going without for the benefit of others is an amazing thing to do, but it can go too far and come at a personal cost, as many kind people will know. You are important too, sometimes you need to prioritise you. Kindness isn’t always external.

      KL xx

  7. Posted April 9, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    I truly believe that kindness is one of the most powerful forces we humans have at our disposal. And while I don’t think you should be kind just because you’re going to get something back, in my experience, that’s what happens. Kindness begets kindness, or something like that! Amelia Earhart said it beautifully – “A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves.” Great post Anna. x

  8. deltafoxtrotcharlie
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Ah, so its not weird that I’m crying about the chocolates then

    thank goodness

  9. Ro
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    My Gran bestowed her approval on my choice of boyfriend (later husband) by telling me that he is a very kind man and that having a partner who is kind is the most important thing. Wise lady that one.

    I appreciate kindness hugely but have always been a bit rubbish at accepting kindness when it’s offered, I go all British and pretend I’m fine which is unsatisfying for everyone involved.

    • Posted April 9, 2014 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Oh that’s lovely that your granny said that about your future husband!

  10. Posted April 9, 2014 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Beautiful post. But to all of those who are worried that they’re not kind because they’d keep the last chocolate (or for whatever other reason) I would say this: it’s not selfish to think about yourself sometimes. Obviously if you only ever think about yourself then it probably is selfish – but in general, in order to care for others you also have to care for yourself. The two aren’t mutually exclusive; in fact, it’s hard to do one well if you aren’t also doing the other.

  11. Anon
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I tried to post this earlier and it didn’t seem to work, fingers crossed for this time:

    This is so lovely. I was in tears at the station this morning whilst reading it.

    I wouldn’t normally comment as Anon but the reason I wanted to on this occasion is that I think that sometimes the person who isn’t kind (or has to work hard to be so) is me.

    This might sound like an excuse but after years of living in the middle of a city, feeling like you’re fighting against other people for space, for recognition at your job in a large company, for female friendships that sometimes you find difficult, because you struggle to get people to confide with as your life from the outside must seem “perfect” and you don’t want to sound ungrateful for what you have, I feel like I’ve given up on kindness in a way. I’ve lost knowing how to do it. It makes me sad. I wish I could be part of experiences like you describe, Anna.

    I’ve lived in the same flat for 6 years and I don’t know my neighbours’ childrens’ names. I routinely don’t give birthday presents to friends as I travel with work and find it difficult to co-ordinate shopping with long work hours as well as the stress of buying thoughtful gifts. If my friends had babies, and some have, to go round and help would feel intrusive as I just don’t feel like we have “those kinds” of friendships.

    This is something that worries me and I really, really wish I were better at but sometimes feel overwhelmed by trying to fix it, and embarrassed when I do, as I feel people will think it is ‘out of character’ for me to behave in a different way and call it out.

  12. LottieS
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Such lovely thoughts and writing yet again, Anna. The bit about Puss made me want to cry too!

    In fact, all of it did by the time i got to the end of the piece. What it left me with is a resolve to work on my kindness, be kinder and more thoughtful to others whenever I can.

  13. Vicky
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Gorgeous, gorgeous post. I don’t have the words at the moment to do it justice, but I loved it.

  14. Posted April 9, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    This also made me tear up!
    A large part of my job is managing a team of people who are volunteering to help others, which they do for many reasons, but often it’s because of empathy to a situation someone might be in. Like every job, there are parts which are not perfect, but the kindness and the thoughtfulness that radiates out of some of them is completely inspiring and really keeps me going through the harder parts.

    Sometimes I think the small insignificant kindnesses are the things that really make a difference. I was once struggling down the stairs in a tube station with a very large suitcase, when a chap offered to carry it for me. I was going home to an empty flat, in a city that I didn’t want to be in, and was utterly miserable. That tiny kindness meant so much to me. It was one of those little things that he probably hasn’t thought about since, but I reflect on every time I go back to London and pass through that station.

  15. Linsey
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to think I’m kind, but maybe not kind enough. I will try and be kinder with this post in mind!

  16. Anon
    Posted April 12, 2014 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    I wrote a long thing and then deleted it. Sadly this is something that makes me feel really sad as no matter how hard I try I feel like I suck at this whole kindness thing and I feel so undeserving of kindness too. I know that this is not the point of this post AT ALL. It is lovely and I think in a better frame of mind I would take a lot from it.

    I love your writing and am so glad you have been shown such kindness and think you are really kind too. xx

  17. Posted April 19, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Only just read this. Beautiful, beautiful. Kindness is SO important.

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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