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Sometimes kindness comes naturally to me. Sometimes I have to be reminded. But sometimes the need to be kind hits me like a fist in the face.
On 3 September a photo of a three-year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey went viral. Aylan had drowned while fleeing the war ravaging his country.
The response from the British public has been extraordinary, with one in three Britons having contributed to a nationwide relief effort, according to the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF).
Water cooler moments at the Stranger office kept coming back to the question: What can we do to help? After ditching various impossible madcap ideas, including driving to Calais with a vanload of sleeping bags, we settled on the most doable madcap idea: One which would make the most money, the fastest, and would draw on our extended collective in the most exciting and productive way possible.
So we set about organising an auction to raise money for Save the Children’s refugee crisis fund. Knowing that the story was already slipping down the news agenda, we gave ourselves just two weeks to make it happen.
Drawing on the cultural community of Cornwall, as well as international artists and buyers from as far afield as Australia and Germany, we corralled, then collected and curated the work of more than 100 creatives.
Everyone we approached donated their work, space, time, food, music and drink without a second thought. And because of these individual kindnesses, we were able to create something that, in its own small way, was quite wonderful. We hosted an auction that raised more than £8000 for Save the Children.
Great things happen when people are aligned around a compelling sense of purpose that’s greater than self-interest. Kindness to others arises out of empathy, which research shows is something necessary both to our personal happiness and our communal well-being.
In The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life, Piero Ferrucci says: ‘It may strike us as absurd to even approach the subject of kindness: Our world is full of violence, war, terrorism, devastation. And yet life goes on precisely because we are kind to one another’. Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor’s book On Kindness grounds this view in the work of 18th century philosopher David Hume, who saw the ability to empathise as being a necessary foundation of morality.
More recently, scientific research has confirmed that kind people are healthier and live longer and are more popular and productive and even have greater success in business.
Perhaps just as importantly, there is an emergent rhetoric of kindness in the public sphere. (Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, recently pledged to put ‘kindness’ back into British politics). And while such views may still be seen as peripheral, naïve and folksy by the mainstream media, to my mind they are appealing. To put it simply, I like the idea of living in a world where politics becomes more conversant with discourses of kindness.
In June 1938 Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, a reflection on the barbarity of war. Photographer Susan Sontag’s seminal text Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) sought to answer one of the questions raised in Three Guineas, namely, ‘How in your opinion are we to prevent war?’
Much as we might like to, we cannot prevent war. But (whisper it softly) we can be kinder. And through our small kindnesses we can create great alternatives.
Illustration by Kirsty Neale.