Kindness might work like a superpower yet it’s way more accessible than a vibranium shield.
I was packing a snack at 4 am in a hostel kitchen for my early flight when I noticed there was someone by the pool, just sitting there, appearing not to be doing anything. I had my doubts, but then walked up to him and started what at first was a rather basic conversation. After a couple of generic questions, we dived into what had been keeping him awake. It was the fact that, due to a certain travel companion, his awaited trip through South America hasn’t been going that well. I don’t need to go into details but I will say that there was an element of a heartbreak there.
I think we talked until I actually had to get ready for my flight, back to the busyness of São Paulo where, ironically, my own dose of heartbreak was awaiting me in the future. And although nothing on the ground had changed, I was so so glad I didn’t simply ignore my hostel mate, or didn’t choose to end the conversation after those first generic questions. We had a lovely open chat about life, expectations, and, hey, that if something isn’t going well, it will (not necessarily soon, but it will) be a good story to tell one day (I didn’t think then it would actually go into one of my blog posts, five years later).
I’m not writing this to brag about my innate kindness or how awesome I was to have noticed someone who really needed company. We’ve all done that, and it’s very likely it’s been done to all of us.
I’m writing this coz I think this is a veeeeeery good time to do more of that.
If you’ve read anything else in this blog or, hey, if you’ve met me (I understand this is a very tight Venn diagram, yes), you must know I’m not afraid of cheesy sayings (or behaviour), so I will say this:
We should never underestimate the power of conversation. Of a small “hey, are you OK?”
Before the pandemic, I would have added, considering but refraining from wagging my finger: “as long as it’s an open and vulnerable conversation!” Yet now I think it’s almost any conversation, really. Neuroscience tells us that even a small social interaction can have a positive effect on our day. A small interaction, man. My lord, how easy it is to bring that to ourselves and to the people around us, like that elderly neighbour or the woman in bright sneakers who’s walking her tiny dog at 7:30 am.
Jack Kornfield, my favourite Buddhist psychology teacher (who I mention a lot in real life; you’re welcome), gives these wonderful talks you can listen to for free here. The talks are highly intertextual, with various stories from his work with different demographics, Buddhist myths, and pieces of fiction. In several of his talks, he paraphrases a famous suicide note left by a person who was going to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. In his loving and calm voice, Jack reads, and your heart cannot but break:
“If at least one person smiles at me on the way to the bridge, I won’t jump.”
In his beautiful commencement address, George Saunders, an American writer, speaks about what he calls “failures of kindness”:
“Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”
Read this speech, listen to Jack Kornfield, and let’s all not forget to smile at people who might seem to be in a hurry somewhere.
PS. Have I had those failures of kindness? Missed opportunities to connect? Not asking friends how they were doing until I myself was “in a good mood”? Oh yeah. As many of my posts, this, too, is a highly hypocritical one. And as almost all of them, it is a reminder to myself.