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In his 2013 commencement address at Syracuse University, author George Saunders shared about an experience at school.
A young girl was teased at his school. Although he didn’t tease her and even defended her a little, it still left an impact on him.
He said: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…. Sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”
I remember the day I failed to be kind.
It was night. I was cycling home. As I sped past the bus stop on my bicycle, I saw a group of boys surrounding someone lying on the floor.
They were kicking him.
I continued cycling as if I didn’t see anything.
After cycling for another two minutes, my conscience pricked me. What if the boy got seriously injured? I turned back.
But when I returned to the bus stop, there was no one there. It was as if nothing had happened.
This incident has pricked me for a long time. Writing this is not easy. After all, who would admit to being a coward? I felt like a coward. I thought those people would end up beating me up, and I would end up getting hurt, or worse.
But it reminded me of Saunders’ words, on my failure to be kind.
Sometimes, in exceptional circumstances, there are those among us who stand up to be heroes. Like the ten people who helped subdue the man who slashed his wife at Beach Road in April.
But most of the time, our opportunities to be kind tend to be smaller and tend to happen in the blink of an eye.
Don’t get me wrong. This article isn’t meant to make you feel guilty, but simply to reflect on how we can do better when a chance to be kind presents itself.
Choosing not to do something
Doing a kind act is a decision. Not doing anything is a choice too.
In the space between taking action and not taking action lies that split second of decision-making — to act or not to act.
Whenever I look back at a missed opportunity, I ask myself: “Why did I choose not to be kind?”
Then I realise. It’s easy not to be kind. It’s easy to look away, to pretend you didn’t see anything, to think that there are more important things for us to attend to.
Once, when I was living in the UK, I passed a man selling the Big Issue (a magazine that the homeless or people in vulnerable financial situations sell to earn money for themselves).
I didn’t have the £2.50 (S$4.25) for a copy. But I had some time on my hands so I struck up a conversation.
He told me: “What I hate most is the people who avoid you on the street. As if they don’t see you. As if you’re invisible.”
In that moment, while I didn’t help him financially, perhaps I gave him a chance to express himself to someone with a sympathetic ear.
Yes, we can’t address every need in the world. If you were to buy every tissue packet from every tissue-paper seller you meet, you might give them some financial relief, but it isn’t always the only thing they are looking for.
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Yesterday, a tissue-paper seller was making his rounds at the hawker centre that I was having dinner at. He was giving packets away without asking for payment.
I waved him away at first — I didn’t need any tissues. But he casually but firmly placed a packet on my table and started to walk away.
“No need, no need, it’s a gift,” he said in Mandarin. Moved, I tapped him on the shoulder as he was leaving and gave him $2.
The more cynical among us would remark that it’s a pretty good gimmick of his, to prey on our emotions like that. After all, it would take a hard-hearted person not to react to that kind of positivity.
But you didn’t see the beam on his face when he accepted the money. “祝福你! 祝福你!” (zhu fu ni, or bless you, in Mandarin), he said.
“祝福你!” I called back as he wandered on.
We often say that being kind starts with the small things. Say thank you to the service staff frontliner, to the toilet cleaner, to the cashier at the checkout counter, to the bus driver or the food delivery person…
But more than just making the effort of saying these things, be conscious also of their reaction to your action — there is joy in reciprocity and in that small positive interaction, a kindness is exchanged.
Failures of kindness at home
I’m not very kind at home.
It has been too easy for me to step around my dog’s mess, waiting for someone else to clean it up. After all, working from home, I’m busy, aren’t I?
What this reveals about me is scary. I realise that I believe my work is more important than that of other family members, and that I’m too important to clean up after my dog.
Failures of kindness at home reveal the most about ourselves. Because at home, we let our hair down. We let our true selves loose, because we don’t feel a need to hide. We trust our family members not to leak the truth about us.
In public, we put on a persona that may not necessarily square with what’s within us. There’s a reason to be kind in public. After all, people are looking. Our reputation is at stake. There’s a cost to not being kind.
At home, not so.
Whether you’re doing (or not doing!) the housework is testament to your character. How much do we care when no one is looking? How much do you care, when the most you’d lose at home is your standing with your family, which some may argue doesn’t really matter?
Being kind at home doesn’t need to be big; we can all start with small acts of kindness. It can be washing your plate and cup, and putting it away. Clearing up a mess even if it’s not yours.
It’s about not who does what. Because love shouldn’t be quid pro quo.
At home, I often argue: “‘It’s not fair! Why do I have to clear up when no one else does?”
It’s only recently that I see that kindness is a gift. It’s not a contract. You don’t give so that you get something back in return. You give, to give.
Failures of kindness in public
When I’m out, I’m usually in my own world. I nod my head to the music from my headphones, drowning out what I hear around me.
Life passes by, almost like a music video, complete with its own soundtrack. There’s nothing to see, or so I think.
Each day, I’ve been putting myself in a cocoon, wrapping myself in music designed to disengage from what’s around me. I’ve never thought of it that way before, but I’ve recently realised that whenever I put on my headphones, I’m deliberately choosing not to tune into what’s around me.
It’s like placing myself in a bubble, telling others: “Don’t disturb me, or else…”
Whenever I put on my headphones, I see myself becoming more irritable. I find myself thinking: “Why is everyone crowding me? Why doesn’t anyone give me any space?”
I tense up, thinking that if anyone knocks into me, they’ll feel my wrath! I treat my fellow human beings with an attitude so brash, it reveals my unkindness.
I see it in the way my eyes focus on nothing but the next destination, rushing from platform to platform.
Then one day, I forgot my headphones.
Walking through the crowded MRT station, I suddenly noticed the classical music playing above the hubbub.
“Oh. That’s new. When did that start?” I thought to myself.
I noticed the small acts of kindness: A man giving way to another while boarding a bus. Three people standing up simultaneously to offer an elderly man their seats.
You don’t have to look for opportunities to be kind. Each day, chances come to you. It’s whether we are willing to slow down and see the opportunities for what they are, rather than rushing through to get to our next destination.
Maybe kindness is not what you have to do.
I don’t know about you, but I used to see kindness as what I had to do.
Kindness should be more than an act. It should be more than a performance in front of others, so that you would look socially acceptable.
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It should be more about how you behave, even when there’s little cost to not being kind, such as when we are at home.
It should be about slowing down to notice, instead of standing back, cool and detached, or speeding by, dithering on a bicycle.
It’s about getting stuck into the details of life — the small, messy bits that make life imperfect, slow, frustrating, and sometimes a little frightening — and perhaps, to make the right decision before the opportunity passes you by.