Today is Mandela Day. Commercially, it’s a fabulous marketing opportunities for companies to impress potential clients with their humanitarianism by donating something to the community, preferably something which can come with a fabulous hashtag and a “67” in it. Historically, it is the birthday of a son of the soil who is so recently departed that I have found myself, throughout the day, randomly weeping for his loss in a way that I couldn’t in the days following the announcement of his death. Like death, grief also comes in its own time, and I guess this is me grieving.
I’ve never been a big fan of committing to charity on one day a year. I honestly believe that acts of kindness and compassion deserve to be a habit for us, acts that we engage in, if not daily, at least regularly. I am also, however, a realist, and I acknowledge that life gets the better of all of us, that it can chip away at our energy, our compassion, our strength, making it harder and harder to find that spark within us, and share it with others.
For this reason, I see days like this as opportunities, and I am angered at the cynicism that it is beginning to engender in those around me. Whilst I also deplore the commercialisation of the day, I can’t condemn its results – which is that, on this day, good things are done for others. I’ve been told that not everyone who engages in the day does so with the right motives but I can’t bring myself either to be arrogant enough to believe I have insight into their motives or dismissive enough to think that, when you are on the receiving end of someone’s giving, that motive is going to make the gift inconsequential to the recipient.
Kindness matters. It matters not only to the people who receive it, it matters to the people who don’t, because kindness is a state of being. It’s the very opposite of all that is wrong with the world today. It is what keeps us human, keeps us connected to the people around us, keeps us from shrivelling up into the tiny corners of our souls, where all that matters to us is what we are, what we have, and how we keep it.
Kindness can so easily become a habit, but all habits have to start somewhere. They start with simple acts, often ones which are so out of character that they jar with our sense of self, make us feel uncomfortable, nestle into our subconscious and prick-prick-prick away at us until we have to repeat them, just to see what will happen. That’s why we find it easier to engage in the first act when we’re in the presence of other people – the first drink, first puff of marijuana….first act of kindness towards a stranger…..
This is what days like Mandela Day (or Christmas, Easter, Women’s Day, Freedom Day) offer us, an opportunity to perform a random act of kindness in a group. For some, it’s their first encounter with the people that receive their gift. In a country as polarised and traumatised as ours, reaching out is still incredibly difficult for so many people that to do so requires enormous courage, strength and, often, back-up. The first time is the hardest. Perhaps they’ll wait a whole year before doing it again. Perhaps they will mull it over, shy away from the prick-prick-prick for a while before trying it again. Perhaps they will leap, feet first into the act of giving, carried away by the almost drug-like euphoria it can give. Whatever. Does it matter whether they ever give again? Really? Does it diminish, for one second, what they did today?
I can’t believe it does. I can’t believe that we have become so cynical, so jaded, that we dismiss these acts as irrelevant, insignificant, addding the usual South African cry of “not enough”. We have become so used to crying “not enough” that I sometimes wonder if we will recognise “enough” when we see it, or, worse, if we will spend our lives making others feel that they are not enough.
That is the rub, isn’t it? This act of giving doesn’t just lie in the giving of money, time, gifts, it lies in the giving of self. There is a little bit of each of us that we give away, every time we are kind to another soul. Ironically, that giving away doesn’t reduce us. It doesn’t take away from us, or make us less.
What does, is the implication, from others, that it’s “not enough”, that we are “not enough”.
At the heart of the matter, this is about people. Isn’t there a little too much irony in the unkindness being meted out lately every time you hear about an act of kindness by another? Isn’t it time for us to become less cynical, to acknowledge that the opposite of these acts of kindness is their absence? How much colder a place would the world be then?