If ever there was a year to celebrate the importance of kindness, 2020 takes the prize.
The covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on our world, washing across the continents like a tsunami. Debris stretched as far as the eye could see. Lives. Jobs. Economies. Nobody saw it coming. No one felt prepared. Whether one caught the virus or had been lucky enough to evade it, people across the world felt united by one truth: everyone had been affected. Our wellbeing, globally, took a hit.
Despite the difficult times, one light kept burning: kindness. It was there in every food parcel, left on a doorstep. It was messages of hope, painted on pebbles. Italian operas ringing out from balconies. Cups of tea, delivered by carers so tired they could barely stand. These are the things we’ll look back on in five years’ time, when the worst has passed. These are things we’ll remember, the moments that got us through.
In 1998, the World Kindness Movement established World Kindness Day, an international observance which would occur every year on the 13th of November. Of course, in true 2020 style, it just had to fall on a Friday this year! Nevertheless, I can’t think of a better time to acknowledge its importance.
This year, I thought it might be fun to celebrate World Kindness Day by looking at the ways different cultures show kindness around the world. Some of these traditions have religious origins; others have emerged in the last few years. Wherever our definition of kindness comes from, it’s never too late to think about the ways our actions can impact those around us, just as no gesture is ever too wee.
These are just a handful of the ways kindness is practiced around the world:
“Ubuntu”, South Africa
Many African countries speak about the practice of ubuntu, which places value on humans working together as a community, rather than individuals. It’s the belief that the common bonds of a group are more important than the divisions within it. Literally, it translates as “I am, because we are”.
The term gained particularly prominence during the mid 19th century, during the deconstruction of South Africa’s Apartheid. It’s since been drawn upon by several world leaders to encourage displays of kindness and compassion across different cultural backgrounds. Nelson Mandela defined ubuntu as:
“The profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world, it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.”
Barack Obama described Mandela’s introduction of ubuntu to the world as his “greatest gift”. Many credit the practice as having a more positive impact on political thinking, social work and community development.
Walls of Kindness, Iran
In December 2015, during a particularly harsh winter, hooks and hangers appeared on a doorframe in the Iranian city of Mashhad. Items of clothes and food were left, along with a sign which read “If you don’t need it, leave it. If you need it, take it.”
Since that day, Walls of Kindness have sprung up across the country, where people can donate items for those in need. In order for it to work, people need to be respectful and honest; to only give what they can, and to only take what they require.
The charitable walls soon gained attention online. Thanks to the power of social media, the trend has now spread to several countries across the world and Walls of Kindness are helping support many vulnerable communities.
It’s a beautiful initiative, but one which comes with political power too. The online attention raised by the original “wall” has helped shine a light on the poverty faced by people in Iran. It’s a crisis their government can no longer ignore.
The Angels of the Camino de Santiago, Spain
Every year, thousands of travellers make their way to Spain to complete the Camino de Santiago, a religious pilgrimage which leads to the shrine of Saint James the Great in Galicia.
It’s a treacherous undertaking, with a walking trail which comes in at around 500 miles!
Many people who have completed the walk will argue that it would not have been possible if it were not for the “Angels” who helped them along the way. These Angels take many forms. There are designated hospitaleros – or volunteers – who are stationed throughout, to provide food, water and medical help. Yet there is also the goodwill of local people, who live along the route. It’s not uncommon to hear stories of weary hikers who have been gifted a hot meal, shower, or even a bed for the night by kind strangers who simply want to wish them well on their mission.
Bodegas Irache, a vineyard and former monastery, even offers walkers free wine so they can toast their achievement!
“Caffe Sospeso”, Italy
In Italy’s cafes, there’s a tradition known as “caffe sospeso”, or “suspended coffee”. I learned about this one while working together with Secret Food Tours in Rome. I have to say, it’s a personal favourite!
It’s very simple to follow. If you’re having a particularly fortunate day, or you’re just in a generous mood, then you purchase two coffees instead of one, thus ‘gifting’ a drink to a stranger.
The anonymous nature of the good deed, and the simplicity of passing kindness forward, is something I wish more businesses would encourage across the world!
“Kaitiaki”, New Zealand
New Zealanders believe that demonstrating kindness to the world around you is every bit as important as human compassion.
Kaitiaki is a Māori term which means guardianship, for the sky, the sea, and the land. Demonstrating kaitiaki means actively making efforts to protect the natural environment, through traditional and sustainable farming, conservation efforts and green initiatives.
Such is the Māori appreciation for the land that in 2017, the Whanganui tribe won their 140 year campaign to see their river awarded the same legal rights as human beings! Their argument that the river is a living entity, and is therefore owed the same kindness, was accepted by the government. This is now common jurisdiction across the country, and an inspiring story which shows the holistic powers of kindness.
Sometimes the simplest ones are the best.
The Swedish tradition of ‘fika’ literally means taking time out of your day to have a coffee and a cake with others. On a deeper level though, it’s about appreciating what that moment means. Yep, we’re back to that good old thing called mindfulness that I like to bang on about!
Fika is important in Swedish culture because it’s a reminder that it’s good to slow the pace now and then. Even busy workplaces will stop so that colleagues can enjoy a natter over a pastry. The scandi nation believes that life needs to be peppered with enjoyment, and that it’s important to treat yourself to things that make you feel good. Being kind to yourself is every bit as important as being kind to those around you.
I wholeheartedly concur.
Anyone who’s read Homer’s epic might remember asking themselves the question, “How on earth did Odysseus manage sustain himself for so long on his journey?” After all, this was long before the time of Airbnb!
The answer of course lies in the hospitality he receives along the way.
This isn’t exactly a new trend when it comes to Greek culture, either. The value placed on providing hospitality goes right back to ancient scripture. The Greeks even have their own word for showing generosity towards travellers; Xenia. Today, the word philoxenia is used in a slightly broader context, to mean showing expressions of kindness towards strangers. This might mean providing visitors with a warm welcome, food or drink, but it can also mean extending offers of help to those in need.
Having travelled across a few of the Greek islands, I can absolutely say that I was met with philoxenia everywhere I went. From invitations to join a local family dancing one evening, to head chefs thinking nothing of joining you at your table to ask about your holiday over a glass of ouzo. The kindness was ingrained across the culture in a way that made you feel as though you’d walked into an old friend’s home.
Okay, so this one is more a way of thinking than a physical act. Still, there’s something very reassuring about the Colombians’ use of the word ‘tranquilo’, which means to be peaceful or relaxed.
It’s used as a term of reassurance. Flight cancelled? No importa; tranquilo. Cracked your phone? Tranquilo. Feeling stressed/heartbroken/a bit lost in the world? Tranquilo, tranquilo, tranquilo.
In essence, believing in tranquilo encourages you not to sweat the small stuff. Passing calmness on to others is such a subtle way of sharing kindness, but when you think about it, it can often be one of the best.
My love story with Iceland began back in 2014. The country had me hook, line and sinker. The volcanic landscapes. The outdoor pools. The obscenely cosy jumpers!
One of my favourite things, however, was the emphasis on imagination; this is a country, after all, where the debate about the existence of mountain trolls is still very much an ongoing thing!
Icelandic people believe that sharing stories is one of the greatest gifts that can be given. It’s tradition on Christmas Eve to give books as early presents, so that friends and family can get cosy together while curling up with a good story. This tradition is known as jolabokaflod, which literally translates as ‘Christmas book flood’.
I love the idea of taking the emphasis away from flashy, expensive gifts. It gets right back to the basics of what the festive season is all about – love, kindness and sharing happy times.
The Buddhist tradition of mudita is all about experiencing joy through another person’s accomplishments. It’s learning to reject jealousy and take peace from celebrating happiness external to yourself (something a certain pumpkin-hued President could learn from at the present!).
Children are taught mudita from a young age in Buddhist culture by learning to give and share. This extends into adulthood, and is often encouraged through meditation and charitable acts. In day-to-day life, this might mean taking joy from mentoring somebody junior to you, or celebrating another person’s win by congratulating them with a gift.
You’ve probably all seen a photo of a Scottish bothy at some point, perhaps without even knowing it. Described by some as a ‘primitive shelter’ and others ‘a characterful hut, made of stone’, there is something undeniably eye-catching about these abandoned buildings, peppered throughout the country’s rugged terrain.
Bothies were traditionally build upon the land of a larger estate. They were used as accommodation for workers and gardeners. Many of these buildings lay empty following the Second World War. Though many still belong to the estates, they have essentially been left to grow into the wilderness, many falling into rack and ruin.
Over the last 50 years or so, bothies have become increasingly popular with campers, or those looking to escape the elements while hiking in the wilds. Their remote location and derelict state often mean that the bothies come with little to no facilities. Heating, plumbing and weathertight roofs are a rarity!
Despite this, they provide a place of comfort and community. Groups of strangers might find themselves huddled over a peat fire for the evening, just to keep warm. Whisky becomes communal.
The love of sharing and preserving bothies has created its own culture. Many have given their own time and money to making the shelters more habitable, patching up the roof, or building benches. An unwritten rule of ‘leave no trace behind’ goes acknowledged – an unspoken generosity which stems from passing the accommodation on from one group of strangers to the next.
On my favourite places on earth is the bothy which sits at Rackwick Bay on the island of Hoy, Orkney. Everything about the bothy is steeped in history, from the ancient flagstone floors to the smell of smoke and earth. I love that you never know who you’re going to meet when you’re staying there, and that the air is thick with stories shared over the years. Almost always, somebody has left a gift.
Honesty Shopping, Switzerland
There’s something so wholesome about the concept of honesty boxes. This is when a person or company will leave a product in a public space, with the hope that people will only take what they need and leave money in return. It’s a system which depends entirely upon the goodwill of people.
Honesty shopping is commonplace in Swiss mountain villages. Farmers and craft-makers will often leave goods such as eggs, milk or even woodwork, in the assumption that fellow villagers will not take advantage of their kindness.
The trend has become increasingly popular across the world, and it’s reassuring to see that trust still exists!
Laughter Yoga, India
They say that laughter is the best medicine; it’s also one of the best bonding tools that can be shared between humans!
These days you can actually combine a good old giggle with a healthy workout!
The practice of laughter yoga is particularly popular in India. It’s based upon the principal that your body benefits from laughing, even if it’s voluntary rather than spontaneous laughter. Exercising your laughter muscles releases happy hormones. This, in turn can give you a happier outlook and overall, make you a kinder person to be around!
You have to see it to believe it!
Does your country have a special way of showing kindness? Perhaps you’ve encountered a particularly memorable show of generosity on your travels? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.