Posted in Life philosophies

The kindness of strangers

If I contacted you out of the blue and asked you to help a friend of mine – pick them up from the airport, say, or let them stay at your house for a night or two – what would you do? How about if I told you that somebody I knew was going to be in your city and needed a friendly tour guide – would you volunteer? If you said yes to any of this theoretical questions, there’s a strong chance you’re from the Southern Hemisphere.

I lived in England for nearly 14 years before returning to New Zealand, and sometimes people would ask me how life in the UK was different to life back home. When trying to explain the subtle differences between the two places, one thing I often mentioned was the casual friendliness of Kiwis – the way that they would chat to you in a shop without provocation, and ask you if you needed help, if they saw you on a street corner, looking perplexed. The example I always used was the degree to which people would help out strangers. For Kiwis, somebody ceases to be a stranger as soon as you’re introduced to them – whereas you could know a British person for many years before they’d even want to invite you home for dinner. The British tend to value their privacy very highly, probably in part because they live on a fairly overcrowded island.

Last Friday Laura, our most recent au pair, left us for an eight-week trip around the South Island in a camper van. She was due to travel with two other German girls, one of which had apparently organised the camper van. However, Laura discovered – after flying to Wellington to start the trip – that this other girl was (at best) a serial fantasist: after unravelling a complex skein of half-truths, it was revealed that she no longer wanted to embark on the South Island trip, and there was no camper van booked. Shocked, and not knowing what to do, Laura caught the Inter-islander ferry to Picton as planned, but sent me a message on the way to let me know what had happened.

I didn’t really know what to do either: we don’t have any family in the South Island, and very few friends down there, and certainly none in or around Picton. Laura reassured me that she’d managed to book a bed in a hostel for that night, but didn’t have any idea of what to do next: she couldn’t afford to travel for eight weeks using buses and staying in hostels, and she couldn’t bring forward the rest of her trip because the next leg of it was a six-week visit to Australia with friends who’d be arriving from Germany, and then on to Bali as she travelled home. She still wanted to see as much of the South Island as possible, and was prepared to help people out with child care or other work in exchange for board and lodging, but she wasn’t sure where to start trying to organise that kind of trip with no notice. It was awful. When you’re a host mother of au pairs it’s a bit of a delicate balancing act between giving them the freedom and independence of adult life, and providing help and support when they need it – after all, this is somebody’s daughter, usually living away from home for the first time.

So I asked for help from a group of women I’d never met. I have the great luck to be a member of a Facebook group set up for women who are both writers and mothers. This group is the best thing on the internet, and I spend 95% of my online time there. It’s full of hugely accomplished and utterly inspirational women – ranging from occasional bloggers like me to published authors and highly credentialed professors and academics – and it’s a group that runs on compassion, understanding, and support. For those of us lucky to be members, it’s our go-to place when we need bolstering, inspirational, or practical help with our projects.

I posted about Laura’s predicament and asked if the South Island-based members could offer any suggestions. This group of brilliant and amazing women responded with offers of help: one member volunteered to pick Laura up from the hostel the following morning and have her to stay for a few days, and several others replied with their own offers to host her as she travelled around the South Island. By the end of the evening she had enough options to easily fill the next six weeks. We set up a separate group for Laura’s trip, and she’s been able to contact women directly and organise her own itinerary. She was astonished and so grateful that this group of people she’s never met – I’ve never met – would be so unquestioningly kind and helpful.

It was lovely to see the values of our group in action. Laura is such a wonderful girl, and she didn’t deserve to miss out of a great trip because of the warped behaviour of one horrible person. I was chatting to my kids earlier today and I told them that kindness is the most important thing in the world – the only thing that really matters. I really believe this. Too often people judge us based on how much money we have, or whether we fit modern standards of beauty, or even whether our personal set of skills and attributes fit what others describe as ‘intelligent’. In so many cases we’re judged based on things we can’t control, and didn’t do anything to earn. And so many people get a kick out of being thoughtlessly cruel to others – especially strangers online – presumably because they don’t feel good enough about themselves to realise that they can be important and clever without it being to somebody else’s detriment.

We need to teach our children about the importance of focusing on the things that really matter – the things that we each can influence: how we choose to treat other people. Kindness is the most important thing, and the way in which we treat others should be the fundamental basis upon which we are judged. Kindness attracts kindness, which is why our very kind au pair thoroughly deserves the outpouring of help she’s received.

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