I have written before about kindness, and it’s a topic I find myself returning to frequently. In part this is because my life is such that I have often found myself at the mercy of others’ generosity, sometimes by accident (homelessness, penury), sometimes by design (holidays spent on strange sofas).
I’m fascinated by kindness, because what should be so simple – what is a basic human instinct – gets so very complicated. I’ve written before about the difficulty of asking for help, and why I think it’s important to build a muscle of trust: to not just ask for help, but to get into the habit of it. To ask without feeling you are a burden, that you are weak, that it is embarrassing not to be able to handle whatever you are going through – a financial shortfall, an emotional crisis – alone and unaided.
And likewise, to be bold enough to give. We are so often constrained from our natural instinct to generosity because we fear that we look pushy, interfering, presumptuous. As if we are storing up favours or expectation in return, as if someone will look at our gift and wonder at our motives.
The truth is, though, there is pleasure and rewards to be had on both sides of the equation. Giving with an open hand is delightful – is there anything better than presenting someone with a gift they truly love? Offering a helping hand when you know you can make a real difference? And likewise, the enormous relief of relaxing into someone else’s aid: of having a hand help you keep afloat, even for a minute, even just long enough for you to catch your breath and start swimming again.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since my return since I have, by necessity, again been dependent on others’ hospitality. Although I had anticipated having to stay with friends and family for a while, it’s taken longer than I hoped, and my plan to spread myself so thinly as to not be too much of a burden (see? I write about this shit and still do it) has fallen through due to not everywhere I was counting on being available. But it’s also been a bit of an unforeseen gift. I’ve been splitting my time between one of my oldest friends and my cousin, and being able to catch up properly with them – as opposed to ticking them off a list as I hare around trying to cram everyone into a weekend visit – has been an unmitigated joy.
It’s also been useful and eye-opening: all my initial plans for my move involved city centre apartments or luxury flats with balconies overlooking the river, a fantasy that is more manageable in a much cheaper city. But staying in very different neighbourhoods has broadened my perspective, and the place I ended up renting is located in an area I hadn’t even initially considered. It has encouraged me to face up to my own issues about accepting without angst – for example, setting up a Ko-fi account was an exercise in asking. (HUGE thanks to everyone who has donated – I get an email every time someone does, which adds a nice little buzz to a day).
Having been the subject of generosity from all over the country (indeed, the globe), I don’t think one region, place or culture has a monopoly on kindness. But I have noticed a difference since I moved back North. In large part, it’s a matter of attention.
In London, as in New York, we train ourselves to look away. Perhaps this is its own form of generosity: in a city where we are living on top of one another, giving someone privacy is a gift of its own. But it does mean that many things go unnoticed. In exceptional circumstances, both Londoners and New Yorkers have proven themselves capable of extraordinary kindnesses – but on an average day, you’re lifting your own suitcase up those stairs, matey.
In Newcastle, we seem more programmed to look towards one another. I’ve mentioned the whole ‘smiling on the subway’ thing, which continues to freak me out. But I had two experiences this week alone where strangers ran to my aid, unasked, and I wondered – how the hell did you even notice that? The other day, I was buzzing into my aunt’s building when I realised that, laden with bags as I was, I was on the wrong side of a barrier: so actually managing to hold open the door, cross the stairs and get inside before the whole thing slammed closed again was impossible – and a young couple literally sprinted across the street to hold it open for me. A few days later, when I was locking up at my cousin’s, and doing my usual ‘paranoid I haven’t locked someone else’s door properly, so I have to check 45 times’ routine, I faffed about so long that a builder from the construction site across the road came over to check that I was OK. ‘You alright, pet? Locked yourself out?’ Neither action was earth-shattering, but each spoke to a level of casual observation I have rarely encountered down south.
Of course, feeling people are paying attention isn’t always a good thing. I could have done with some London indifference the other day when, sitting on a crowded Metro, I went to reapply my lipbalm and only realised, as I put it to my mouth, that I had actually pulled a loose tampon from my bag…
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