There is no such thing as a small kindness.
This is what Donna Cameron, a Seattle-based writer, wants the world to understand. Some action that you may perceive as small may mean the world to someone else.
In her newest book, A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You, Cameron builds on the blog she started in January 2015. She tells me she has been actively committed to being kind for 20 years. What does that mean? Aren’t we all sort of kind?
The difference for Cameron is that she’s actively aware of being kind. She always felt wonderful around kind people. “You feel special. Kind people have an aura that makes you comfortable, and I thought, I want to be like that. Kind people go out of their way. They don’t care if it’s an inconvenience. They look for the kind response.”
For years, Cameron would say she wanted to be kinder. But those bad days would come, and the kindness would “sputter out.” Launching her blog and writing this book made her accountable. If she stopped writing or began to slack off, her friends would notice. So she blogged every Wednesday and increased her followers, who then encouraged her to write a book.
“I hesitated for a while because I didn’t want to position myself as an expert.” The last thing she wanted to create was a self-help book. “I instead approached it with what I observed, what I saw, the questions I asked, and invited people to customize kindness for themselves. I don’t want to tell other people how to live,” she explains.
Writing a book and actively being kind may seem like a daunting project, but Cameron had years of experience.
She was inspired by her lifelong career working in nonprofit organizations, and was particularly intrigued by volunteers who didn’t have to volunteer but were doing so out of a deep need to help people.
“They loved the cause they worked for and that’s kindness in action—caring beyond the paycheque, giving your time and energy to an important cause.” She feels blessed to have had a career where she was surrounded by people all the time. When people work with each other and make the world a better place, a collaborative kindness is created where communities are built and can give goodness to the world.
Now, Cameron is using her passion and writing skill to contribute kindness to the world. And like in anything else, everyone starts somewhere.
Cameron has written professionally for years for her clients, but she started writing when she was young. “My parents instilled a love of reading in me,” she says, and she believes that her love of reading was a gateway to her love of writing.
She thinks of her sixth grade teacher, Mr. Edward Allen, every day. “He encouraged me and said, ‘You need to keep writing, Donna. You’re good at this.’ I bless him for inspiring me to do something I love. Every Monday, he would assign a writing assignment for the week, which we had to take home to work on. It was my favourite thing. Nearly everyone else hated it. I couldn’t wait to work on that project.”
It was Mr. Allen’s kindness that helped pave the way for Cameron’s career in writing. A small assignment; a world of difference.
But why is it hard to be kind?
Cameron explains that, “There are different barriers for all of us. It can be intimidating. We don’t know what the reaction is going to be. Our kindness might be rejected or misunderstood. It puts us out where we’re noticeable and a lot of us were raised with the admonition not to draw attention to ourselves, to just go with the flow.”
There is a risk when it comes to kindness, like speaking up when others stay silent, or “standing up when everyone else stays seated.” Not to mention the world we live in now, with our phones glued to our hands. “Our eyes are on our handheld devices or we are so focused on our own internal drama that we don’t notice what’s happening around us—that there is somebody behind us whose arms are full and we could open the door for them, or a child who just wants some attention. There are so many easy ways to express kindness.”
Another challenge is that people think kindness needs to be a sweeping, grand gesture. “We think, if my next-door neighbour is sick, I need to make her a four-course dinner and buy her flowers, but that’s not needed. You can just heat up some soup and bring it over.” This goes back to the action of a small kindness. “We neglect to do them because they’re so small. We think it’s not going to matter if I say good morning to the barista, but it does matter. Little things do make a difference. Someone may not notice if you don’t do it, but they’ll notice if you do.”
Cameron, a lover of research, has found that “there have been a lot of studies at different universities about kind business cultures and the health benefits of kindness. Kindness alleviates chronic pain and social anxiety. You live longer. There are so many benefits that have been measured.” She writes in detail about these studies on her blog, and her goal now is to spread an epidemic of kindness.
“Research has found that unkindness and incivility are contagious. Like a cold or a flu, you pass it on to others. It causes us to be ruder or more unkind in our next encounters. And that explains the world right now. Kindness is a catalyst for more kindness, consideration, compassion, and respect towards people,” she articulates. The toxic behaviours of others in our world right now, politicians or pundits, “won’t be tolerated” and Cameron plans to make that understood in a kind way. Cameron knows she’s not a “paradigm of kindness.” She still gets cranky. But she stresses “no one is perfect at this, and that’s okay. You have to be kind to yourself too.”
Cameron’s husband sees her at her best and worst. I wondered if he noticed Cameron being kinder, but she actually explains his own understanding that he’s kinder. “If he sees an opportunity he jumps in and helps.” She’s rubbing off on him. Kindness is contagious, and Cameron recognizes that some “people think kindness is weak. That kind people are pushovers and easily manipulated. I think kind people are the strongest among us because they are willing to be kind in the face of rudeness.”
With the holidays approaching, Cameron offers some advice on how to promote kindness during the colder, busier season:
“Some may not welcome the season. We don’t know what’s going on in other people’s lives. The holidays may revive sad feelings, or make people feel left out, or they can’t afford to participate. Ramp up empathy.
“Give ourselves the gift of self-care and compassion, because this time can be stressful. Forgive yourself when you can’t do everything you want.
“Finally, stop keeping score. I remember two women behind me in Starbucks, comparing what their boyfriends were giving them for Christmas, comparing past gifts—gifts are not a measure of how much someone loves you. I ran into a woman who tracks Christmas cards, so not to send one out to a person that doesn’t send to her. We all keep score in different ways. Learn to receive graciously.”
If we can all practise being more actively kind, perhaps we can take that mindfulness into the New Year, and well into our lives. To read Cameron’s book, find it online.