Februrary 17th, 2017. Mark the date and be on your guard. Today is the day ‘gestures of kindness’ will be performed in our unsuspecting communities: International Random Acts of Kindness Day is here. The picture above is of course very heart-warming. But my stomach is turning in anticipation of people following up on the official suggestions – I don’t want a stranger to give me a hug, or to tell me how nice I look today. That’s just plain weird. I don’t even want the person in front of me to pay for my groceries. Not surprisingly this idea stems from a cliché on a placemat in California: ‘practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.’ I think what gets to me is the pre-conceivedness of it – shouldn’t we always be on the look out for ways to help a stranger? I guess I’m happy with it if it’s a consistent outlook, and our actions will make a genuine difference to someone. The real danger is that we will just make them cringe.
I have just told Jemima, my eight-year-old about it, and now I wonder if I am being a little harsh. ‘Oh, Mr H did this,’ she replied. ‘He’s the best teacher ever. He paid an old lady’s parking fine. He had some money left so he bought someone a coffee.’ I want to know if this was really in response to a day like this, or if he’s just a nice guy. From what I know of him I think it’s the latter.
Selflessness has to be one of the most admirable traits. The literary character who impressed me the most in my teenage years was Sydney Carton, Dickens’ drunkard-turned-good lawyer in A Tale of Two Cities. He still does, though I’ve encountered a few more to rival him. Perhaps I like him now for his reluctance to people-please early in the novel – he “care[s] for no man on earth and no man on earth cares for [him]”. Yes, I know that’s not at all selfless, and I wouldn’t love him so if he stayed like this. He reminds me that no one is set in their flaws forever. Carton disguises himself as his friend and goes to the guillotine in his place. In a Christ-like resignation he sacrifices all that he is for the happiness of others. We read, ‘They said of him, about the city that night, that it was the peacefullest man’s face ever beheld there. Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic.’
We like to feel reassured about human nature in real life, too. Last month there was the news story about Alex from Reading whose bicycle was stolen. He wrote a note and taped it to the scene of the crime, and soon a kind woman began crowd-funding for him. You can watch a clip online as the replacement bike is given to him.
Selflessness is not exclusively a human trait, though many scientists argue that animal ‘kindness’ is merely a display of altruism. I like to think that there is some generosity in the equation. Vampire bats give blood to those in their group who haven’t eaten in a few days. Long-tailed tits sometimes rear their siblings children, rather than attempt a new brood of their own. Occasionally we read of a swimmer saved from a shark by a dolphin, or watch a bird revive another bird as I have today. These instances are at their most beautiful when they are not the norm, but prompted by a spontaneous urge that makes us think ‘I want to be like that’. I hope it will never be because an international organization has told us to.
Clip filmed in Saudi Arabia and posted on LiveLeak. Please let me know if this is your footage and I will attribute more fully!