Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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“Kindness is Catching”

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, June 17 / 13

Zack Gross

It seems like a grouchy time these days! Maybe the cause is the long winter and cold spring that we've endured. Maybe it's the economic downturn that has affected people's budgets. Summer sun and warmth will help, as will vacation time. And maybe some philosophy and stories about why we are here and Random Acts of Kindness that are being undertaken.

Karen Armstrong, an academic and author, after writing her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, was invited to speak to a global audience about her idea for a Charter for Compassion and a campaign to sign up individuals, businesses, educational institutions, and cities.

This  is a project – the book,
the talk (a TED Talk on the Internet), the Charter, and the campaign that she has worked on for five years. One hundred thousand people have signed on on-line and many cities around the world have initiated committees to become Compassionate Cities, while individuals are doing Random Acts of Kindness (RAKs) to push and pay the idea forward.

You may recall the Winnipeg bus driver Kristian Doubledee, who spotted a homeless man walking without shoes. The driver saw the opportunity to park his bus briefly, jumped to the pavement and handed the man his shoes. 

A young University of Windsor student, Sydney Holmes, along with a group of friends, recently performed 22 acts of kindness on her 22nd birthday, from visiting hospital patients to handing out breakfasts and coffee. Fulfilling, she said, for givers and recipients alike. “I cried all day – good tears.”

Karen Armstrong shows in her book that all religious, spiritual and ethical traditions call upon us to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. We are to remove ourselves from the centre of our world and put others there. We are to respect our sister and brother human beings and treat them with justice and equity. When we violate this ethic, we violate our own humanity – we fail to live up to our potential.

Two seemingly very different people from different ages agree. Charles Darwin, whom we often associate with “survival of the fittest,” and the Dalai Lama, whom we associate with peace and love, have both said – almost word for word - that “We are compelled to relieve the suffering of another, in order that our own painful feelings may at the same time be relieved.”  Adds the Dalai Lama: “The seed of compassion is the discomfort we experience when we see someone suffering.”

Official compassion and Random Acts of Kindness are not only happening elsewhere, but in Brandon, too. Brandy Robertson, a graduate of and employee at Brandon University has intentionally made kindness and compassion a part of her life.

After an “awful bout of illness,” she committed to 100 days of RAKs and when she turned 29 this past winter, she set out to recruit 29 friends to join her to commit RAKS that day with her.

By the end of her birthday, she had reached her goal, including delivering coffee and flowers around town, and donating books and toys. Her target locations included the Brandon Clinic and Hospital and Brandon University. 

What “blew her away” was that 51 friends and family in seven countries on five continents joined her in adding 72 RAKs to her total. 

“Kindness is catching,” she says, “and one person really can make a difference.”  Doing good is great, but the self-worth that comes from doing for others who may not pay you back but may pay it forward is “untouchable.”

It seems that those who have committed RAKs admit that it is not only an altruistic experience (us helping others) but also comes from a bit of enlightened self-interest (it makes us feel good). Citizens do kindnesses for one another every day – opening doors, shovelling walks, carrying groceries, coaching and leading youth groups, making donations, caring for the sick and aged.

What the Campaign for Compassion asks is that we be intentional, that we tell our stories and that we make it both a part of our individual lives and a part of official life in our workplaces and our cities.

Robertson, via Desmond Tutu, “those little bits of good put together overwhelm the world.”

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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