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No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted

18 May 2020 | by David Murphy

Although the theme for Mental Health Awareness week 2020 was decided before the coronavirus pandemic began, it couldn’t be more appropriate.

In addition to all the tragedy and distress the pandemic has caused, it has also provided a demonstration of the phenomenon that social psychologists have been struggling to convince governments of for years – namely that in the face of crisis humans generally don’t react with panic, or selfishness, but rather with kindness.

When I was made redundant from my post as director of the clinical psychology institute in Oxford, the students gave me a book in which each of them had written a page of their memories of me.

Perhaps secretly I hoped that the pages would be filled with memories of my inspiring lectures and all the psychological knowledge they had gained from them. However, it wasn’t.

Instead, the one word that came up, time after time, was kindness, and they recalled many instances, most of which I’m ashamed to say that don’t recall:

“I will always remember the time I came to you and you had a reassuring word.”

“It meant so much that you always asked how I was and meant it.”

“Thank you for checking in on me.”

“I will always remember the email you sent...”

“Thank you for your friendly chats and kind words.”

Please don’t misunderstand my point, I don’t think I am any more kind than anyone else. But what lived on in their minds after I had left, more than any insightful lectures or demonstrations of clinical skill, was their memory of kindness.

And it was only upon reading this book that I fully realised the truth of Aesop’s saying:

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.

I am truly grateful for my students for teaching me that lesson.

Sometimes performing acts of kindness can be seen as a chore, or even thought of as something one does purely in anticipation of some reciprocal gesture in the future, like making a deposit in a kindness bank one can draw on in future times of need.

However, I think this misses a point which I only fully understood myself some years ago after I had the privilege of attending a talk given by Archbishop Desmond Tutu on kindness and the African concept of Ubuntu, which is commonly translated as "I am, because you are”.

“Arch” as he asked to be called, gave this explanation of what Ubuntu means:

“We cannot be fully human on our own. We are made for interdependence; we are made for family.

When you have Ubuntu, you embrace others. You are generous and compassionate.

You are rich so that you can make up what is lacking for others. You are powerful so that you can help the weak”

Soon after I had this opportunity to learn about Ubuntu, I had an opportunity to put it into practice.

One of my students told me that her mother was about to start treatment for a relapse of cancer and, as we spoke, she mentioned that her mother was so proud of her being at Oxford and was looking forward to her graduation the following year.

I didn’t have anything to offer to ease the suffering of her cancer, but I wondered if I did have anything else I could offer and, with just a few phone calls and emails, I was able to arrange for them both to come to Oxford a few weeks later for a private tour of the impressive hall of the Sheldonian Theatre (where graduations take place) and to attend a guest night dinner at our college.

I could see how much it meant to her to be there and how proud she was of her daughter, and the following week I received a home-made card with four leaves fixed onto the front with glue, on the back of which she had written how much the day meant to her.

I never saw her again, as she passed away a few months later, but she was in my mind throughout the ceremony the following year.

That card is still one of my most precious positions and can even be seen in the background of the photo which I commonly use as my profile pic. It always reminds me of a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”

My student’s mother taught me a valuable lesson about kindness - not to look at what you have to give through your own eyes but through the eyes of another.

For me, arranging a visit was a simple matter but to her it meant the world. To her, making a card with four leaves was also a simple act, but it continues to mean the world to me.

Ubuntu – “I am because you are”.

David Murphy

17th May 2020

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