MY VERY GOOD FORTUNE
An introduction to a book I am writing
I am writing this as we approach Christmas 2020, not quite locked down but restricted and aware now more than ever of how important kindness can be.
Kindness and love, not quite the same perhaps, but linked. It seems to me that kindness comes from a concern to treat others with consideration, to make life easier or more enjoyable for them without, perhaps, stepping into their lives and taking on a commitment or a particular responsibility. Love emerges spontaneously and entraps us in a relationship with someone whereas kindness is something we know we should offer to others, particularly those who are vulnerable or in need of help or guidance or friendship of some kind, people to whom we can choose to offer kindness. Someone who is kind can recognise an opportunity to help someone else and will respond accordingly if they possibly can.
When he was about six my elder grandson was presented with a treat and immediately sought an assurance that his younger brother was to be rewarded in the same way. I remembered learning that by the age of twelve children who are developing normally will have learnt that others have a repertoire of emotions similar to their own, that what they are capable of enjoying or suffering so too are others.
Quite when it first dawned on me how fortunate I have been, I can’t remember but I have compiled a list of folk who have extended kindness to me throughout my life, whether it was deserved or not. I am writing this during our second lockdown here in the UK and have just read about the Cirencester Kindness Project whereby people are going out of their way with little acts of kindness for strangers to help lift people’s spirits during what has become a difficult time. These people, in my book, have seen an opportunity to show kindness to others and have done so, like many others we are now learning about.
What is it to receive kindness from others? I rather think that it is to know that someone has done something for you that you will appreciate, for no other reason than that it could be done. A kind person may take pleasure in their act of kindness but we know that they have acted out of concern for us rather than to please themselves. Before I introduce people who have shown me kindness please listen to four tales.
Early during the pandemic I placed four bottles of beer on the moving belt at the check-out in our local Coop. “I am sorry,” said the girl on duty. “You’re not allowed more than two of any one item. I’ll have to take two of them back.” I had failed to heed the notices to that effect, pinned up all over the store. Before I could move the man following me in the queue interrupted.
“Don’t do that. Just move them back with our things. We’ll bring them out for you.”
Within a few minutes we met again outside the store and they removed my bottles of beer from among their groceries. Then I reached into my pocket for my wallet.
“No, no. That’s all right. We were pleased to do it.”
And no matter what I tried, they would not allow me to pay them; it was as if getting round some regulations was sufficient reward. They were certainly pleased with themselves, but, of course, this would not have been possible had their natural kindness not kicked in first when they saw my difficulties at the check-out.
A speaker from The Industrial Society had come to my school to talk to senior members of my staff about their work He happened to mention that he had served as a Lightning pilot in the RAF. He had been almost too tall to fly Lightnings so, he explained, whenever he faced a medical he had flexed his knees as much as he dared to minimise his height for he loved flying these aircraft. Someone mentioned then that we had a sixth-former whose ambition it was to gain an RAF scholarship to study engineering at university.
Our guest had finished his work with us, towards the end of the day, and was gathering up his paperwork. Then he asked if he could meet this sixth-former of ours. Soon it was settled. The boy would remain behind after school and our guest would put him through an RAF-style interview, to prepare him better in his attempt to join the RAF and gain his scholarship. This was done and soon we were writing to our guest to tell him of the young man’s success. Whether his intervention had been crucial we had no way of knowing but we knew without a shadow of a doubt that our student had been delighted by a stranger’s unexpected gift of time, his knowledgeable advice and his determined encouragement.
Another student of mine left school and went to Saint Andrew’s University where one evening, after dark, she found herself riding her bike along the pavement without lights. She turned a corner and ran into a young man whom she knocked over as she fell off and sprawled across the pavement. He was first back onto his feet.
“Hi. I’m Wills.” With these words a hand was extended and his assailant found herself back on her feet. As it dawned on her who it was that she had knocked down she looked around for his security guards and wondered whether she would find herself locked up in the Tower of London; her father was American, her mother French. Meanwhile her victim reassured himself that she was not hurt and they parted on good terms. When subsequently they met around the university from time to time there was always an enquiry after her well-being.
Ernie, a friend at scouts, had a German mother. This was explained to me by his father in his usual matter-of-fact way. Just after the end of The Second World War he had found himself, at the age of eighteen, doing his National Service (Compulsory military service) in Germany. It was a freezing cold winter and Ernie’s dad was standing still, in the dark, guarding a British military base of some kind. Over the border in Holland, starving Dutch people were eating bulbs for Europe was short of food.
Three German youngsters approached him, a girl of about fifteen with two younger boys in tow – they turned out to be her brothers. Somehow she was able to ask him whether he had any food he could give them, for they were starving. At that time the British military authorities had imposed a “no fraternisation policy.” British troops were not to befriend Germans in any way; they had been very wicked and were to be taught a lesson. Ernie’s dad turned out his pockets to show that he was unable to help. Next night the girl returned with her brothers.
Whether it was because the young British soldier had appeared friendly and sympathetic or simply because they were desperate it was not clear, but, before going on duty he had taken the trouble to fill his greatcoat pockets with chocolate from the military canteen and his meetings with the girl and her brothers then assumed something of a routine. Two years later Ernie’s dad married the girl and soon after that they became Ernie’s parents.
My project is to record and acknowledge something of my good fortune over the years. I started with a list of one hundred and twenty people to remember, some, of course, no longer with us. In starting to write up these memories I have encountered the dynamics of kindness for as I re-call one item I am reminded of others and now my list has grown to one hundred and seventy kind people. For each of them I would like to show something of the circumstances in which we met and something of the way that their kindness manifested itself. My hope is that this book will provide an appreciation of my good fortune and will demonstrate and encourage something that I believe is important, not simply while we cope with Covid-19, but for as long as we have to share this planet with other people.