Being kind

This week is Mental Health Awareness week in the UK. The theme of their activities is ‘kindness’. Isn’t that just the most perfect, simple expression of all that’s good in the world rolled up into a word that means just as much to my 6-year-old as it would to his 92-year-old Great Grandfather? [on my wife’s side – my grandfathers both having long since departed I’m sorry to say]

Kindness doesn’t expect anything in return. Kindness is selfless, honest, truthful. If it’s not… well actually then it’s not kindness at all, it’s something else.

For young Jack [6 and a half, to be accurate – and that half is VERY important] being kind is about helping someone who’s fallen over; sharing a particularly good stick; giving his big brother Ben [10 now – I know, I can’t believe it either] one of his sweets. It’s different to helpful (tidying up) or nice (an unexpected hug) – it means doing something for someone else simply because you can.

[No, these are not my two boys but I know it would have been such an unbearable hassle getting them to pose for a picture without attacking each other that I only really considered it for a second before dismissing it as a fool’s errand. I feel good about that decision.]

For Bob [92 and change] in his little village in the South Wales valleys, kindness is just as simple, and probably not even considered anything out of the ordinary. If someone’s fence needs fixing, you help fix it. Not because your fence might need fixing (trust me, Bob’s fence is pristine) but because that’s what you do. Simple, small acts of kindness, as a way of life.

[As a side note, I’ve always been fascinated by Bob’s little community where a whole chain of give and take has developed over the years. Check this out: Bob grows tomatoes – not because he particularly likes tomatoes, but because the bloke down the road does and he has chickens, so Bob gives him tomatoes for some eggs… not because he particularly likes eggs, but because the lady up the road needs eggs to make her cakes. And Bob does like cake.]

The word ‘kind’ actually comes from an old Middle English word meaning ‘nature’. It used to be that if someone was kind it was because Mother Nature had done a really bloody good job with them. Hundreds of years later, and we still talk about someone being “good natured”. And then as the words travelled like a stream through time, diverging into different meanings all from the same source, the same word that became “kind” also became “kin” – our tribe, our family. Kindness and human connection interlinked through language, over centuries.

Research from The Mental Health Foundation (which you can find here) has shown that the idea of kindness and mental health are deeply connected – that kindness is “an antidote to isolation and creates a sense of belonging”. There are proven connections to stress reduction, improved relationships. And kindness to ourselves allows self-esteem, optimism and resilience to blossom.

All just through kindness. Kindness always has an effect.

So perhaps we can think of every small act of kindness like a pebble being thrown into a lake, with the ripples of that kindness spreading far wider than the little pebble ever could have imagined.

Perhaps kindness has an energy that can pass from person to person, ripple by ripple, across geographies, across cultures, across every difference you can imagine. Even across time, for ever.

If you want to hear the most exquisite explanation of kindness, then I implore you to watch this 2 minute clip of the poet Maya Angelou, who sadly left us in 2014. She talks about kindness as trying to be “a rainbow in someone else’s cloud” and I promise you’ll catch your breath with the beauty of her words.

130 Best Poetry images in 2020 | Poetry, Poems, Words
Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

And so until next time, I thank you for the kindness of reading these words of mine, and leave you with some worthy words of another poet: this time an Englishman who came from a simpler time perhaps, but who nevertheless sums things up just right.

“The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”

William Wordsworth

Sending you kindness and love, this week and in those to come, too.

[For more information about Mental Health Awareness Week, visit https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week. And remember, kindness still does all that good stuff every week.]

A new normal?

We’re all feeling it. That feeling that the world has got smaller. All it takes is a couple of weeks of self-isolation and suddenly the idea of meeting some friends, or out to see a gig, or even to go further than walking distance from your house… it all seems like a wild dream after too much blue cheese [true story – started happening to me about 5 years ago].

The restrictions on our lives, the lack of human contact, the worry about what might happen if we were to venture out: it’s all-consuming and there doesn’t seem like there’s an end in sight.

Week one was all about adjusting to the “new normal”.

Week two and the novelty has worn off a bit as we realise that we’re going to be like this for a while.

But there’s no way it can last more than a few weeks, right? I mean, people just won’t put up with it for much longer, right?

Every high street in Britain, every day

That’s the narrative we’re hearing. Even if leaving the house might endanger people’s lives or the lives of the people they love, it’s become an accepted truth that those people simply will not comply for very long at all. They’ll get bored. Stir crazy.

Just a couple of weeks into all this, with the prospect of many, many more to come, and we’re all going nuts about a situation which some people have to deal with all the time.

Millions of people around the world are effectively house-bound for all kinds of reasons – old age, chronic illness or injury, mental health – all the time. Not for a couple of weeks, but for weeks and weeks and weeks on end. Even for ever.

That’s isolation.

Some people don’t ever get visitors. Some people can’t ever go for a walk. Some people can’t ever even face the idea of human contact, or even going outside at all.

Here’s what this made me think of…

A couple of years back, the New York office of the agency for which I work (CDM) did an amazing project for a young boy called Peyton. He was 10 at the time, and because of a rare skin condition he couldn’t go out in sunlight without developing skin cancer. Imagine that, for a 10-year-old kid, unable to go outside with his friends? Never able to go to the open-air swimming pool with everyone else?

What they did for this kid was incredible. Working with all the residents of the small Midwest town in which Peyton lives, they “turned night into day” – without him knowing, they organised the whole town to come out as a sun went down to show their support for this one small boy – a huge barbeque, a marching band, high fives from the local pastor [feelin’ American Midwest enough for ya?] an announcement from the mayor, and the swimming pool floodlit and open to Peyton and all his friends, playing up to the camera just like every other 10-year-old in the world.

Once you’ve finished reading this [and not before – I am watching you] I urge you to go and watch the film of this here – it’s just beautiful, heart-wrenching stuff and if you don’t shed a single tear whilst watching it you have no soul.

They did this to highlight that people living with rare diseases – people like Peyton – have restrictions every single day. They will have for his whole life. We can’t go to the shops for a couple of weeks and we’re freaking out.

This crazy time has changed a lot of things – about how we’re working, how we’re connecting, how we’re becoming part of our communities.

If someone had said they wanted to work from home because of a disability a month or two ago I know for a fact that most employers would have totally discounted it as completely unworkable. Today we’re all doing it.

If someone had said that we should be looking out for the vulnerable in our community, checking in with them, offering to shop for them or just ring for a chat, I know that most of us would have thought “yeah, but I don’t really have the time myself”. Today, we’re creating community WhatsApp groups to make sure everyone’s covered.

Maybe, just maybe, this shitty little virus will have left us with something more than antibodies. Maybe we’ll be left with a new sense of empathy, and even some important new ways of working and connecting along the way.

Maybe when all this eventually blows over – and for sure, this too shall pass – maybe we’ll remember the feeling of having our lives, our choices impacted by something we couldn’t control.

And maybe we’ll give a little more thought to those for whom this isn’t the “new normal”: this is the same old normal as ever, just without being able to get a food delivery or any bog roll.

Now go watch “Good Morning Peyton”, and y’all stay safe now, y’hear?

Time To Talk Day: my anxiety

Today is Time To Talk day in the UK. It’s part of the Time To Change campaign (https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/) which aims to change the way people think and act about mental health problem, led by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.

It does what it says on the tin really – a day where people are encouraged to be more open about their own mental health, talk about the mental health of others and try, piece by piece, to remove the stigma that exists around mental health issues. At home and at work.

I’ve always been able to handle a lot of stress. Even when things are kicking off, I can get through okay. Maybe a bit tetchy with people at work, snappy or grumpy (or just plain exhausted) at home, perhaps lose a bit of sleep here and there. Still able to have a joke and a laugh, just maybe a little unpredictable I guess. I’m sure I’m like a lot of people in that when I’ve got a lot on it’s tough to turn off or relax, especially when you’re going through all the possible scenarios in your head and they get worse each time you do it! Nothing a couple of glasses of wine before bed won’t help eh?

Yup. That’s been me, for as long as I can remember.

Sometimes it takes something big to change the way you see the world. A birth, a death. Perhaps love.  For me it was a little post on Facebook whilst on a business trip somewhere in Germany.

A little context…

For a good few months, I’d been rolling through the mantra at the top – I’m fine, just got a lot on, nothing I can’t handle, etc etc, you know the drill.  I was almost snapped out of that one morning early last year.  I’d woken up in the middle of the night, work stuff rattling through my head like an old train, unable to get back to sleep and getting more annoyed about the fact that I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about work and all that. So rather than wrestling with the bed clothes and waking my wife I decided to just quietly get up, get dressed in the dark, and go to work. 

I live about 90 minutes from the office door to desk, and I was at that desk by about half 6. God knows what time I woke up originally, but by mid-afternoon I was grumpy as hell and dead on my feet.  I got home that evening and my wife asked me what time I’d left and I’d explained the night time scenario. I could see her worried face and tried to reassure her.

“I’m not stressed out, I just can’t stop thinking about things and I’m finding it hard to sleep”.

To which she quite rightly replied: “that is stress, you idiot”.

Hmm. Maybe I’ll have a think about that.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I’m sitting on a perfectly on-time, quiet and non-rattling train going through the German countryside, alongside a colleague and [dare I say it] friend [yes I dare]. It’s the end of a long day and I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed, wondering why I’m friends with people on Facebook with whom I’m not actually friends in real life, and wondering if I should just immediately unfriend anyone who uses #hashtags on Facebook post (#holiday #celebrate #blessed #lovemylife) when I come across this…

It’s like I’ve been slapped in the face.

I read the list again. I can tick off maybe a dozen of these without thinking about it. Another handful if I do.

I turn to my amigo/co-worker and show him.

“This is me”, I say.

Those words, on that train, were the start of a journey of my own. The very first step was admitting to myself that being really, really good at dealing with lots of stress whilst simultaneously hiding it isn’t the superpower that I thought it was. 

In fact, it’s bloody Kryptonite.

Left unacknowledged, unspoken and undercover, that stress can damage everything I hold dear – my work, my family and ultimately my life.

I won’t bore you with the details of precisely what happened next, but the first step for me was talking. Talking to colleagues, friends, my wife [hey honey – how’s your day going?], then my GP, then a counsellor. Then back to my GP and since the beginning of last year I’ve been on some medication which I’ve found really helps.

[By the way, it’s still a massive deal to “admit” that I’m on medication to help with my anxiety, because of some weird stigma and shame that exists about it. Perhaps I’ll unpack that in a separate post…]

Nearly 2 years on I’m a lot more content, more calm, more connected with the world around me, with myself and with my emotions than I ever thought possible. Sure, I still get nervous about things, and I still get pissed off about things – I’m human, not superhuman, remember? – but I know I’ll never confuse a superpower with Kryptonite so easily again.

And every single person I’ve told has been totally supportive. Just like I would be if it were the other way round. Turns out quite a few people feel the same. I know, right?

So over time, I’ve started talking about it more openly with my agency friends and family too. Because if I can show that I struggle sometimes, it makes it “okay to not be okay” and, hopefully, we can support each other through all the stressful times with a bit more honesty and vulnerability.

And I know I’m still on the journey I started that day, and that I probably always will be. That’s okay. That’s my decision and something I’m proud of, in a weird way.

But what I will say is this:

If you’re reading any of this thinking “fuck, that’s me”, then this is your slap in the face. From me to you.

You’re welcome.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Remember that the very first step is to talk.

And given that it’s #TimeToTalk day, maybe that’s something you might consider doing today?

Talk to someone who cares about you – a friend, a partner, a colleague – and you’ll find that they will be just as kind and thoughtful as you would be if they came to you.

Best of luck, and please, do take care of yourself.

A friend of a friend

This morning I was going to post a blog about something else. But the last hour has changed a lot. Changed my mood, changed the moods of those I’ve spoken to, changed the moods of many people around the area in which I live.

That’s because on Sunday night, a friend of a friend took his own life.

A man about my age, perhaps a bit younger. Married with a young family. Not going to be here for Christmas.

He really isn’t someone I know well at all. I’m not sure I’ve ever said more than a word or two to him at the bar or in passing. But he’s a recognisable face. The friend of mine who knows him is a good friend…

(Hang on , do I now use the past tense and say “he was” instead? Seems too soon; a bit cold. But he lives in the past now I guess?)

It’s a familiar story – former armed forces, struggling with his demons. We’ve heard it all before.

And now he’s not around any more. The world around him shattered into a million little pieces. The impact going further than he ever would have imagined.

The ‘former armed forces’ bit is all too familiar of course, but it’s not a prerequisite.

Just a few days back, I read a long, heartfelt post from an old school friend on Facebook, talking about his struggles after having surgery which has left him with a stoma to manage. Mental struggles. Really tough mental struggles. The kind of thing that makes people wonder if it’s worth it.

And another distant family member sometimes posts stuff that feels a bit like a cry for help. So does a mate of mine from Uni. I never really know what to do or say, or if it’s my place to do or say anything.

None of them have ever met each other, and the only thing they have in common is that they’ve all met me at some point (in varying degrees).

Oh hang on, there is one other thing.

They’re all men.

According to the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. 75% of all suicides are men.

Click on the pic above to access the CALM website

Some of the reasons they give that men and boys can be more vulnerable to taking their own life are:

They feel a pressure to be a winner and can more easily feel like the opposite.

They feel a pressure to look strong and feel ashamed of showing any signs of weakness.

They feel a pressure to appear in control of themselves and their lives at all times.

CALM website

What a fucking mess. This is the other side of masculinity. The flipside of the patriarchy.

In his book “The Mask of Masculinity“, Lewis Howe talks about all the stereotypes that as men we feel we have to live up to. Aggression, invincibility, alpha, knowledgable. It’s all bullshit and yet sometimes as men we end up in weird situations where we feel we have to be more of something we’re not.

Stoicism is the first of these masks in the book. For me it’s the most destructive and dangerous.

Boy’s don’t cry. Grow a pair. Man up. Take it on the chin (literally about being punched in the face). Be a man about it. Don’t be such a girl.

It’s sexist bullshit.

Translation: emotions are female. Females are weak. Ergo, showing, talking about, even having emotions is weak, weak, weak.

That’s why men don’t talk about how they’re feeling. Try to pretend they’re not feeling. Judge themselves for feeling. Shame, shame, shame.

Is there a better demonstration that sexism is bad for everyone?

In that context – with all the masks of masculinity weighing down – it is incredibly brave for a man to show his emotions. It takes incredible strength and courage to admit you’re not okay. Because that vulnerability is something we learnt to hide in the playground, and everything we’ve heard and seen since has reinforced that.

I’ve got two boys, and I’m doing my damnedest to raise them to understand their emotions and those of the people around them. I don’t hide from them when I’m feeling sad (particularly around this time of year when the loss of my Mum a few years back is keenly felt). If they’re sad, or nervous, or unsure, I tell them that’s totally understandable.

I sometimes even bore the daylights out of them by explaining the evolutionary reasons for the ‘flight or fight’ physiological response. Super dull, sure… but they know why they get butterflies. They’ve told their friends about it. It’s something they can talk about.

I’ve done this because I want them to know that it’s okay to not be okay. So they can talk to their friends – if they need it or their friend does. To grow up to be well-adjusted, open, vulnerable, incredible young men. All a parent wants if for their child to be safe. And this is my way of making them emotionally safe.

Being a modern man is about dropping all the masks. Let it all go. Bravery is about opening up, not shutting down. We all get better for it.

So speak up. Or check in. It is your place, as much as it’s anyone’s.

Boys do cry sometimes.

Love and peace.

Please take time to visit the CALM website and share around the place – there’s loads of good stuff in there. And if you’re wondering how to start helping, try following the simple mnenomic below…