Friday, 18 April 2014

The Kindness of Strangers

The Kindness of Strangers:
Stories worth sharing

In his convocation speech to graduates last year, author George Saunders controversially advised a generation of students to focus on kindness instead of the more traditional aspirations of career success and financial gain.

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly. Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet. It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: try to be kinder.

You can read more notes from Saunders' speech here if you like. 

The kindness of strangers has been a big influence in the set up of this writing projectThis is what kindness looks like in the languages of every country this blog has been read in: 

       la gentillesse
ystävällinen teko
טוּב לֵב
kebaikan hati
a gentileza
la amabilidad

We can trace kindness in the English language back to the Old English of the thirteenth century, where kyndnes was actually a word for nation and increase, related to gecynd and cynn, or 'kin' as we know it today, meaning family. So the earliest use of kindness in English emerged as a sort of categorizing noun, establishing a unit of people. It developed over the centuries and was combined into words like mankind, humankind, kindliness, but I think the eight-hundred year old root of kindness can still tell us something about the way we think about kindness today. We all have socially and culturally constructed ideas about the kind of people we are, the kind of people we have in our lives and the kind of people we extend our kindness to. Every time we say things like 'they're my kind of people' or 'she's that kind of girl', we reinforce those prejudices, for better or for worse.

I agree with George Saunders when he says that some of the most memorable people in our lives are those who were kindest to us. Perhaps most memorable of all are those moments where a total stranger shows kindness, asking nothing in return. These moments of kindness seem to me to draw upon something instinctively human: the recognition of someone else as human and real, no matter who they are or where they have come from.

Sometimes kindness is expressed without words, as I have written a bit about in Learning Arabic (al arabeyha العربية), Iceland and Imagination and A Syrian kitchen in ItalyWhen a friend and I were hiking in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia a few years ago, we got caught in a hailstorm. We sheltered beneath a thinly leafed tree as our guide shook his head and said he had never seen hailstones before. I had never seen anything like them. They were enormous, sharp, and pelting down. The temperature had dropped considerably and I was afraid for my friend because she had already developed quite severe altitude sickness on the steep ascent up to the plateau. But too far into out trek to turn back, we trusted our guide and climbed higher for three kilometres in the hail until we came across a settlement of two small huts. Our guide spoke with the woman who owned the huts and we were led into the animal shed where a small fire was lit. We had an audience of horses, cows, chickens and six or seven children, who took our sodden boots and began to cook them over the open fire to dry them out. Smiles and curious glances were exchanged instead of words. I think we must have looked like aliens, arriving on a stormy afternoon, but they were kind to us. We sat there until we were warm and dry and could continue. I will never forget their quiet kindness up in those Ethiopian mountains.

One year earlier, I was diving on Havelock Island, an island on the Andaman archipelago between India and Thailand. I had hired a bike to cycle around the island, but as I did so, a tropical storm broke out overhead and on my path I spotted enormous piles of some sort of animal dung. I knew there was an elephant sanctuary somewhere on the island so my mind suddenly reeled with images of elephants charging at me through the trees. I had cycled for four miles and it was too far to cycle back in the rain. When I saw the shapes of elephants in the distance I slowed down, and saw that they were in fact tethered to trees. A man came out and met me. He saw I was shivering so invited me into his house, a small one-room hut, for a hot cup of chai tea. His wife was there and his two children, who wanted to see my drawings. None of us spoke much of each other's language, so we fed the elephants bananas and I drew the children and the mother asked me to stay the night. So I did, and after helping to cook dinner, we swept the dirt and insects away to put down a mat. I slept the night with the two children and their parents. I wish I could remember the names now, of that family who were so kind to me.

A few years on I had another cycling adventure. This time I flew to Bordeaux in western France with my bike in a hold bag, ready to cycle the fifty miles to the coast to meet my sisters who had caught the ferry from Portsmouth, England, to St. Malo. They had already cycled the majority of the west coast of France and were waiting for me in a tent at the Dune du Pyla. I had to cycle across to them from Bordeaux but to do so I had to reassemble my bike, which I was not entirely sure I could do. A man at the airport asked what was in my bag so I showed him and explained in my worst French that it was my bike: in bits. He told me to follow him and showed me where I could post my bike bag back to the UK. We then carried my bike bits to his car, where he packed them in to the backseat and then drove me to the cycle path at the edge of Bordeaux.

So there I was, with seven hours of sunlight left to cycle to the coast, and my bike in bits. Before I could even begin to put it together, a man cycled along with his son and, seeing me struggling, silently set to work, putting my bike together for me before waving me off on my way. A few kilometres down the line his handiwork failed and my handlebars came off in my hands, but another cyclist came along and helped me fix them back on. For the rest, I was on my own, but I would never have made it to the coast that day without the kindness of strangers, and my sisters and I would never have reached Santander in Spain.

When I talked to a friend about the kindness of strangers recently, she told me about a conversation she had had with a stranger in her workplace, The Univeristé Ouvriér de Genève. She had been giving an orientation, welcoming people and helping those looking for the right course or funding. One particular man's behaviour was quite abrasive, so her other colleagues began to avoid him, but she could sense from the outset that something was wrong. She began with a few questions: where was he from, what was he up to in Geneva, what was he doing before he came there? It took a while for him to open up, but when he did, he told her that before Geneva he had been in Somalia. 

After talking for a while, he reached up to his collar and pulled it down to show a scar that extended from his throat downwards towards his chest. In Somalia he had been tortured.  She could have joined her colleagues then and walked away from him, but instead she listened to his story. He explained how he could not escape the memories of his past. So she then explained to him that the pain of those memories, and the emotions attached, would not go away, but they would fade, each year lessening, loosening their grip on him. She could speak with such authority because she had suffered a different kind of torture, sexual abuse throughout her childhood. She too had been shown kindness on her path to recovery. She tells healing stories I've never heard before, about respecting and acknowledging emotional pain, not running from it but learning to live with it. By the end of her conversation with this Somalian man, she said he seemed different, as though a weight had been lifted. 

I wonder what acts of kindness you have been shown by strangers in your lifetime, or have shown others? You can write to me if you like, at

Thanks for reading, and feel free to share these stories if you know someone who would like them.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely beautiful, Helen, as ever. And the travelling you've done! Wonderful! One of my favourite memories of the kindness of strangers was one day when I was driving in London and there was an awful noise and I pulled over to find that my exhaust pipe had fallen off. From out of nowhere a truck pulled over, a man jumped out and got a plank of wood from his passenger seat and put it over the curb to form a makeshift jack and instructed me to drive the car onto it. Then he got under the car and tied the exhaust pipe on with a cable tie so that I could safely get to a garage. An angel! Thank you for helping us all to remember to be the kind strangers we want to meet.