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Kindness’ is a funny word – not very scientific, but apparently it is good for your health. Websites that I won’t stand over, but which you can research with due diligence, say various good things: Kindness can raise serotonin and oxytocin and therefore increase nitric acid causing dilatation of vessels and reduce BP; people who do perpetual acts of kindness have 23 per cent less cortisol and therefore age more slowly; a study of anxious persons who performed six acts of kindness a week became less anxious in social settings; kindness increases endorphins and some call it the ‘helper’s high’; kindness has been shown to be twice as effective as aspirin in improving health outcomes.
So you are wondering how I got interested in this esoteric subject. Well, I was recently taken aback by one of my own acts of kindness. Stunned actually, in a philosophical way. I felt really good in anticipation of, during and after my minor act of kindness, and I was not expecting the buzz. I hope you noticed I described it as a ‘minor’ act. We are taught to be self-depreciating and never to note any natural highs because life is serious and life is tough. We can’t be getting above our station.
A neighbour had a sudden unexpected bereavement. I decided that ‘neighbours’ are not just actors in an Australian drama and that the pub ‘where everybody knows your name’ is not just an old watering hole in Boston. Cheers. Well done!
So what did I actually do? I brought the neighbour for lunch some weeks after the funeral. They had no car, so going themselves was not an easy option and even getting out and socialising again was daunting. I felt good about myself. Actually, good. I know! This is not always the case. This seemed strange to me because I am a doctor. We help people out the whole time, but this felt very different. Why?
The difference is about expectation. They were not expecting me to act in this way. It was a nice surprise. There was no commercial element. It was not my job. There was the creative side to me doing it. It was my idea. No one else’s. Not from some protocol of what was mandated or expected by society, regulator or media.
Sometimes I wonder if what I do in medicine could be done by anyone else who was trained, so my place in the world is not unique in terms of being a doctor. There are things you are expected to do. But when I bring some of my creativity to it, in some way, then this gives me a good feeling too.
I get a buzz sometimes when I am on-call on the weekend. I could easily refer the patient with ear wax to their own GP for de-waxing because I am on-call for emergencies, yet I get a buzz when I choose to put together some equipment to give them instantaneous relief, there and then. This is a nice break from the tiring expectation of antibiotics for all and sundry and bad medical practice as dictated by lazy Google searches.
Maybe that is why we resist protocols. They make us feel even more like robots than we already are. McDonald’s has very effective, rigid and strict work systems. But conveyer belts can be dehumanising after a while.
There are two parties to kindness. The receiver also plays a role. They can smile, acknowledge or say ‘thank you’. Sometimes it is in people’s vulnerability that we can see the opportunity and privilege to be kind. I was in Dublin’s Phibsboro on a wet and windy March day. I had a puncture and I was changing the tyre on the dangerous side of my car, where other cars were speeding by. Suddenly I noticed the rain stop and there, over me, was a stranger holding an umbrella to protect me from the rain and to be an object that other cars could see. I was not expecting that and obviously I still remember it years later. Unexpected kindness can be humbling. It is so easy to see only bad in the world and in people. Looking back now, I realise that this act of kindness to me must have given them a buzz too. That it can feel like a privilege sometimes to be spontaneously kind, just for the heck of it. Kindness can make us feel good about ourselves and our identity, when our identity and sense of self is often bashed by others and even ourselves.
John Lonergan, former ‘Gov’ of Mountjoy, who worked in prisons from 1968 to 2010, often reflected on the fact that he encountered many prisoners of different types, but never met a person who was all bad or all good.
In fact, I heard a story recently of a notorious Dublin criminal who in earlier years had jumped into the Liffey to save a young neighbour’s life. He did not have to, but then… maybe he did. Maybe we have to be kind to balance our cruelty. So be kind to yourself today.