It's time to try some simple acts of human kindness

Katie Byrne

WE'RE a notoriously caring nation, so give someone a little TLC to mark suicide-awareness week, which is on now

I WAS late paying my phone bill this month, writes Katie Byrne. When I finally got around to it, the person in the call centre asked me if "there is any particular reason you are late paying your bill?" I didn't like this question. Not only was it utterly redundant, but it struck me as interrogative too. Besides, what kind of answer did he expect -- "I lost the run of myself at the Electric Picnic." "The 3:20 at Gowran Park last Saturday?" So I snapped at him. "I don't think that's any of your business," I asserted in a clipped tone. There was a muffled silence and the call was swiftly ended.

I was quite proud of myself afterwards. Well, for a few minutes.


Then I felt bad. I've always reserved a special disdain for people who are rude to call-centre operatives. It's ultimately useless - and spineless - behaviour. This man was simply doing his job, and I very much doubt he held a personal curiosity about my financial situation.

I've worked in call centres and I know that a sharp comment, no matter how much you try to deflect it, can dent your confidence, and it takes a while to regain your composure and get back into your stride.

On a bad day, you can take it personally. I wondered if he took it personally. It's profound that my sharp words could upset somebody in a call centre in India. They could have. And maybe they did.

We just don't know what people are going through; or rather what impact our rude behaviour -- however much we justify it -- could have on them.

We've all had our low moments and we know that it's not the mountains ahead to climb that wear us out, it's the pebble in the shoe. I've seen people bury loved ones; nurse sick children and grapple with the black dog of depression, but often the moment they break down is not during the toil of these horrors, but during the day-to-day strife of modern life.

They can just about cope with putting one foot in front of the other, but it's the emotionless civil servant, the condescending colleague or the rude shop assistant that eventually wears them out.

I remember a friend who was quite ill with depression calling me after an incident on the tube in London. She was late for work and was hurriedly applying her make-up. In the rush, some of her face powder tipped onto the lap of the woman sitting beside her.


She apologised profusely and offered to pay for the dry cleaning, but the woman reprimanded her very loudly and very personally.

Had my friend not been suffering from depression, she would have at this point told the woman -- in the nicest way possible - to shove it up her arse.

Instead, she got off at the next stop. She told me later that she felt pathetic. She had endured many dark nights of the soul during her illness, but this seemingly trivial incident absolutely devastated her. It was the pebble in the shoe.

When you are feeling low, it can feel like the whole world is against you. Indeed, I have no doubt that nasty people can sense when people are having a weak moment and they often abuse the power that they temporarily have over them. But it's easy to forget that everyone has their problems. And it's easy to forget that everyone's problems are more pronounced these days.

The world is in a state of radical change: economic, social, industrial, technological, environmental...

Huge changes are happening all over the world at the same time. And with macro changes comes micro changes. It's no coincidence that our personal lives are being shook up, too. We will remember 2012 as the year of change: lifestyle changes and occupational changes. People are moving house, some are moving country. Relationships are ending (and beginning). Just look around you to see that we're all in this together. It's fast-track evolution, and ultimately it's all for the better.

But change makes us vulnerable. There is a huge feeling of uncertainty in the air and we need to be mindful of that. We have to take care of each other, and not just our friends and family. It has never been more important to be kind to everyone that we encounter.

This week is Suicide Awareness Week. The suicide rate in Ireland has risen in recent years. Likewise, there has been a sharp spike in calls to helplines like The Samaritans and Aware.

Suicide is a complex subject, and I don't know that people who haven't been suicidal have the mind architecture to comprehend what happens when a person goes to that place.

But what I do know is that kindness reconnects us to humanity, and I know that many of those in the doldrums of depression have lost their faith in humanity. They see the world through grey-tinted glasses.

I remember from my own low moments how a sneer from a stranger could ruin my day, while a smile from a stranger could make my day. When you're depressed, the charitable acts of your friends and family can fill you with dread.

To accept it is almost to admit defeat. You have to produce a front-door face and rouse enough energy to show gratitude when the knee-jerk reaction is to pull the covers over your head and pray they Just. Go. Away.

The kindness of strangers is different. Civic kindness can lift the spirits of depressed people because they are not under pressure to have their spirits lifted. It is instantaneous and spontaneous.

There are all manner of kindness projects currently afoot in Ireland. The residents of Clonakilty, Cork, recently held a Random Acts of Kindness festival, loving-kindness Buddhist meditation is gaining popularity and many charities are heading up grassroots kindness schemes that include everything from street cleaning to elderly visitation programmes.

Big businesses have got in on the act, too, with social enterprise and pay it forward campaigns.

These initiatives create a paradigm for the way we should connect with one another, but it's down to us to make it a way of life by practising kindness in all of our daily interactions, whether it's with your long-term partner or a call centre operative in India.

Last year, the Young Foundation in the UK released a report called Cultivating Civility in 21st Century Britain. The report concluded that "civility is the largely invisible 'glue' that holds communities together and that experiences of incivility cause hurt, stress and deeper social problems, and has a bigger impact on people's sense of social health than crime statistics".

I think Irish people have an inherent understanding of this report. As a nation, we are extraordinarily kind and decent people. It is proven too: we came second in a kindness league table of 26 countries compiled by OECD. The score was based on volunteering time, giving money and helping strangers.

And the recession has made us even kinder. There is a community spirit in the air. I dare say it feels as if we are back in the days when you could ask your neighbour for a drop of milk.

For some entrepreneurs, it has become a case of people before profits.


I had the pleasure of meeting a woman called Christine Clear last week. She runs a space called the Living Room on Clarendon Street. It is a sanctuary of sorts, a place where people can visit for a moment of peace and quiet amid the hustle and bustle of town. The service is free, her only motivation is to offer people a bit of respite.

It's so easy to abide by the Golden Rule, and the effect it has is so far reaching. As the saying goes, "no act of kindness is ever wasted".

There is a domino effect with kindness that has been well documented by social scientists. In short, it is contagious.

Kind people are also proven to live happier and longer lives. For all the lotions and potions we women can wear on our faces, there is nothing more beautiful than the softness a life of kindness etches upon it.

The solipsists argue that kindness is a selfish act, that we only do it because it makes us feel good and look better in the eyes of others. "Altruism is a concealed egoism," said French sociologist Emile Durkheim.

I disagree. I know countless people who would sacrifice themselves to help others, even if there was nobody around to see their act of charity. The fact that it makes them feel good is secondary. Kindness transcends. I hasten to add that Durkheim also said there would be less suicide in altruistic societies.

It's a shame that some of us still abide by dictums such as "nice guys finish last" and "charity begins at home". It's an us-against-them mentality that is borne out of the fallacy that life is a race to the finish line.

Yes, there are chancers, people who capitalise on the kindness of others. But they are few and far between, and really, they are to be pitied for theirs is a lowly existence.

I know I'm preaching to the converted when it comes to Dubs and kindness, but to those who don't practise, why not take a leap of faith?

Need to talk? Samaritans: 1850 60 90 90; Aware: 1890 303 302