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.]

Maintaining Momentum

Sometimes starting is actually the easiest part. It’s not so hard to get people to commit to action on a particular issue when everything is pretty crap and therefore kind of embarrassing, especially if that embarrassment could be linked back to some kind of innate injustice or wrongdoing or privilege that makes us feel uncomfortable…

Take any issue you like. If on a scale of 1 (bad) to 10 (great) we’re all basically somewhere between 1 and 3, then it’s clear that we need to do something and do it right now then there’s energy and action and movement. People get involved because 2 “just isn’t good enough” and “we have a responsibility to do something” and “it’s only by pulling together that we can shift the needle on this crucial issue”…

But if we’re getting up to 5, or 6 (or even 7 on a good day)… well, do we really need to carry on making such a fuss?

“From a scale of 0 to 10, how crap are things currently?”

“I know it’s not perfect but it’s a damn sight better than it used to be…”

Oh, no. Not this. I know where this is going…

“Okay, so we’re not where we want to be on gender equality but you should have seen us two years ago…”

“We’ve done a load of outreach stuff to bring in more people from different ethnic backgrounds but it’s not really landed yet… we’ll just have to wait and see how that goes…”

“I think we’re really accepting of gay people already – I don’t see we can do much more…”

They’re not direct quotations but there’s an underlying feeling that we’ve kind of “done” some of these things. Gender, some stuff on race, maybe LGBTQI+ in some vague way. Used to be a 2, now we’re a strong 5 aspiring for a 6 or even 7!

The moment we think this stuff is in any way done is the moment we lose any momentum we’ve built up.

There’s no question that things have moved on in the last few years – particularly on gender equality (which was given real impetus through the #MeToo movement) but we’re only just starting to see the slightest movement on anything that will allow good intentions to result in lasting change.

The vast majority of D&I work is still done effectively voluntarily – by people giving their own time, energy, thinking and effort for nothing. That’s not just true for charities, that’s true for some of the biggest, richest corporations on the planet.

Good will and personal energy will get things moving and keep them going for a couple of years; perhaps more for people whose passion and resilience mean they refuse to give up.

But finding the energy to start again, from scratch, every year? Always on top of the day job? That’s tough. Especially when the momentum isn’t there.

Events that used to sell out in minutes suddenly find they’re only just breaking even.

There used to be 10 or 15 people who said they wanted to help, then suddenly you’re down to the same 3 or 4.

Movements that started with passion and energy and forward movement suddenly slow to almost glacial levels, so slow that any movement is imperceptible to the naked eye. Is it moving or is it… dead?

This is happening. I know it’s happening because I’m seeing it with some of the people, organisations and events I’m close to personally, and that can’t be a coincidence. [Unless… wait, am I the bloody bad luck charm??!!]

That’s why I believe this is a crucial moment in the shift towards a more inclusive world of work.

The initial shift from things being totally crap to being kind of okay has brought with it a low level of complacency which threatens to bring the whole thing to a grinding halt.

Just when things have started moving up is not the time to stop pushing. It’s the time to find more people to help with the push. By bringing together not just individuals but groups of like-minded people the effort is shared and the energy amplified.

And there’s no better time for that than right now.

If this crazy time we’re in the middle of has done anything, it’s re-established what’s important to people – or at least amplified the sound of what’s important. Connection, community, co-operation – it’s all been amplified along with the sound of balcony singing in Milan and Thursday night clapping in Manchester, and pans bashed in Manhattan.

By being forced apart we’ve ended up more together than ever. More thoughtful, more empathetic. And that, my friends, is where inclusivity starts.

We’re going to have a hiatus this year because of coronavirus – no question of that. No marches, no conferences, smaller meetings. So let’s use that time to regroup, recharge, and find our groups of like-minded, committed, stubborn idealists.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead, Cultural Anthropologist
 (December 16, 1901 – November 15, 1978) 

Find your group, make your mark. Push harder, aim higher. Never settle.

Hold the line.

Who’s with me?

[Take care. Be safe. Stay inside. Stop touching your face.]

Forged In Crisis

Nothing will ever be the same again. How we think about ourselves, our families, our friends. How we connect, how we work. What we value, whom we value. What we’re prepared to sacrifice or forego, and what fulfils a basic need.

This will be how our time is remembered. Everything will be pre- or post- in a way that we can’t comprehend and could never have imagined. Any more than people living in the 1920s and 1930s could have imagined their time would be talked about as “between the wars”. [Imagine the dread, if they had known – that after the devastation of “The Great War” as they knew it, there was another to come…]

With such a seismic shift, and a world economy that will take years to recover, the business decisions we make will also change. Businesses that have just hung on will find the road ahead a tough and bumpy one. Even seemingly strong organisations may find that their customers have moved on, priorities changed. Jobs that seemed “essential” in their own way before may simply cease to exist.

Across our country we are already seeing that small businesses are really struggling. The independent coffee shop which may not ever open their doors again, the small theatre, the local pub.

And even the big boys will creak, across the board. Of course we’ll lose a couple of high street stores which were holding on by their fingertips anyway; maybe an airline or two won’t make it back. But every business will be affected. There will be unemployment – already we see people who used to walk down the aisles of intercontinental aeroplanes stacking shelves in the aisles of the local supermarket.

It doesn’t feel like a time for trying something new, for innovation. Certainly not a time for risk. It’s a fact of life that, in times of financial struggle, many companies – big and small – will be tempted, encouraged, mandated even, to “play safe until things settle down”.

Let’s go with what we know. Don’t rock the boat. Low risk, yeah?

In this context, is there time or space to be thinking about this diversity stuff? Really, shouldn’t we just come back to that when things are a little more settled?

Especially when it was kind of hard to practically implement anyway…

And we’ve all done the unconscious bias training and had those rainbow flags up for Pride month…

Hmm…

In her book Forged In Crisis [it’s very good, I’d read it if I were you] Harvard history professor, Nancy Koehn, describes crisis as a “crucible” for courageous leadership in turbulent times, where the means may be flexible but the end has more dedication and determination than ever. Great leaders are born from necessity in a crisis.

And innovation is born from crisis and tension too. The Renaissance (French for “re-birth”, of course), an explosion of art, literature, and learning across Europe, came out of the crucible of a culturally barren and brutally war-torn Middle Ages. The incredible advanced of the second half of the last century came, in part at least, out of the crucible of a world decimated by two wars.

Our world is shaped by its crises. Always has been. Ask the dinosaurs.

Perhaps in a world where everything is new and different and nothing will ever be the same again… perhaps that’s actually somewhere that we need new thinking, new ideas? New ways of solving new problems?

So in this context, isn’t the real risk in trying to recreate the old? In reverting to what used to work, what used to make sense, before everything changed?

When everything is up in the air, the ability to adapt to ambiguity is the most precious quality we can hope to find. Innovation isn’t about sameness, it’s about newness – new thinking, new outlooks, new ideas. You don’t get that by trying to recreate, reverting to conservative, non-inclusive, type. You get that by embracing inclusive thinking, creating the environment for a diversity of ideas to flourish.

We all know that it’s difficult to make room for diverse thinking – it takes time, and effort, and active decisions, and it often comes down to committed individuals driving initiatives on their own time, crowd-sourcing/funding their activities, using their own energy.

So this is a time that those committed individuals should look to assemble like-minded people around them, to connect, convince and then collaborate in new ways. To lead us out from this crucible.

A clever dude with a beard* once said:

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change

*Sir Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species, 1859

Responsive to change, eh?

Hmm.

Feels like right now we might actually need a bunch of people with different ways of seeing the world to help shape a new world, doesn’t it?

Now, dear leader… go and lead.

We are all animals

Imagine the situation – you’re in a whimsical conversation with a group of people, and someone asks “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?”. It’s a classic question. What’s your answer? A bear, because you’re strong but cuddly? An eagle, because you’d like to float over the world seeing things from on high? A sloth, because you’re incurably lazy and haven’t cut your fingernails for a year?

Well when I’m asked this question, I’ve developed a habit of saying “I’d be a 40-something male human”.

Partly I give this answer because I’m a clever-dick/smart ass [delete as appropriate for your geography] and take a kind of weird pleasure in being pedantic and low-level irritating [a trait I inherited from my old man along with various other things including gout – thanks so much Dad!], but partly I give it because it reveals a simple, irrefutable truth that we often choose to forget about ourselves:

We are animals.

And that’s what our current crazy situation has reminded me. That when you strip it all away, in a way that we tend not to do, you land on perhaps the plainest truth of all.

We are all just animals.

We are strategically shaved monkeys, and despite everything we have built up around ourselves over the last few thousand years we’re at the whim of a miniscule little virus. We can’t see it, we can’t fight it.

We have little computers in our pocket which can tell us any fact on earth within a minute or two [just think about that for a second – it really is incredible isn’t it?] and we’ve developed a society where we all know where to stand on the escalator and how to order a very, very particular kind of coffee with a particular kind of milk and even a particular way to make that milk hot and put it in the coffee.

But all of that means nothing in the face of that fact that we are the same animals we always were, just as vulnerable to a tiny little virus as our ancestors were thousands of years ago. As our descendants will be in thousands of years to come.

And as animals – simple, needs-driven animals – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tell us we first need food and shelter, then safety (personal, economic, psychological) and so on.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs | Simply Psychology
Maslow, A.H. (1943). “A theory of human motivation”. Psychological Review. 50(4): 370–96.

But in a developed country today the lower levels are, for most at least, all ticked off. Not only do we have “shelter”, we have spare rooms, underfloor heating, an app to turn on the heating before we get home.

So we create a new world of needs around us. We convince ourselves that we ‘need’ a pizza with cheese in the crust, a haircut, that new pair of Nikes, a phone with a better camera. Faster wifi, better holidays, a bigger house.

And then it’s all stripped away, by a tiny little invisible virus that closes our society down within a matter of weeks. Can’t get the pizza delivered. No point in the new Nikes if there’s nowhere to go and no one to show.

If this weird time has done anything for us, it’s taken us back to basics, exposing the real needs in our lives.

The need to get out of our homes, if only for an hour a day, to get our fix of fresh air, exercise, nature.

The need to connect with friends or families, virtually as we can’t do it in person.

The need to show our support for each other, be that through clapping into the quiet night air or by singing across balconies or by picking up medicines for those who can’t get out.

Think about these – they’re all, in their own way, a little rebellion against the feeling of having our freedom curtailed. Like any animal, we’re not happy in a cage – even an imaginary cage made of social responsibility and societal peer pressure which is protecting us from potential danger.

As animals, there’s no question that we’ve got too big for our boots. Drugged by the intoxicating idea that we are special – as individuals and as a species – and have some kind of right to have whatever we want.

So this is a unique time to reassess what is really valuable to us, and re-evaluate how we’ve been living our lives. To really establish what our true needs are, as communal animals. Because we’ve been shown that we only function as part of a wider society.

And we all need that society. In its true sense: the word comes from the Latin ‘socius’ meaning companion. Companionship, togetherness, collaborative association with others.

Surely we can come out of this with more balance than we came into it, right?

Less hubris, more humility. Less ‘me’, more ‘we’.

Yes we are all animals. Yes, individually we are vulnerable, weak, susceptible. But together, we have shown we can love and protect each other and build civilisations the like of which our ancestors could never have imagined.

And what we build from here? Well, that’s down to us to decide from this point on. Let’s not forget what feels important to us right now.

Take care. Be safe. Stay inside. Stop touching your face.