You may know Zool or @cadmus08 from his position in the shop putting together a world-class events programme and building sustainable beneficial relationships for the shop with institutions and organisations throughout Oxford. If you fall into this category then the following piece may not astonish you as much as the people out there who don’t know him. Having said that I have known Zool for many years and he astonishes me each and every day.
The entire Blackwell’s business has been doing a lot of work over recent weeks about what ‘values’ are important to us as individuals and as shops. Zool has played the key role for our shop in championing, cajoling and coaching so that we settle on a representative, realistic but aspirational set of values. At one of our evening shop meetings Zool read a length from ‘This is Water’ by David Foster Wallace, a piece that specifically talks about empathy. I love the fact that in a staff meeting we had a 20 minute reading from a David Foster Wallace book. Zool has that sort of ambition. It is just one of the reasons why we love and admire him so much.
Acts of Kindness
How can we create more delight in the world?
This is a personal piece, partly about our own interior emotional landscapes, and there’s also some stuff about books in it too.
It is based on a very simple starting point which is that life can be tough, bewildering, unfair and aggressive.
If I ask myself what I want to do with my life, there are many answers to that question, but one answer is that I really, really want to be able to say to the sort of ‘looking back on your life’ type question – that at the very least I added to the sum total of the pool of human kindness.
I think that we all need to take steps to make the world a little bit less frightening, a little less anxious-making, a little more uplifting.
There’s a classic catch-all disclaimer that I need to add in at this point which is to say please don’t view this article as being righteous or churchy.
Stewart Lee has this great line in one of his comedy acts where he says (I paraphrase just a tiny bit) that there’s been much discussion about what the last existing taboo might be, and that having thought about it, he’s decided that the last existing taboo is simply to do something sincerely and well. That line always cracks me up because it rings so true.
One of the beautiful things about Acts of Kindness are that they do not need to be universe-altering in scope, in fact they are often merely what many people would call good manners or common acts of decency. Saying “bless you” when a stranger on a bus sneezes. Helping someone with a pushchair who is trying to get into or out of a building. Telling a friend or a colleague that you admire them for something they have said or done. As many a sage grandmother is wont to say, a small action that costs nothing but means everything.
In Mark Williams’ book, “Mindfulness”, Mark talks about a concept which we would all benefit from embracing – it’s the concept of kindness to oneself. If you are anything like me, heaven help you, but if you are, then you will often take one difficult thought – perhaps a work or a social situation which you feel you could have handled better – and that thought will then reverberate like razor-wire in your brain over the next 24 hours. If you’re not careful, this whirring piece of psycho-shrapnel can do terrible harm to your self-belief and your self-esteem. Let this happen too often, and it can leave you in shreds. Kindness to self is about remembering that the person to whom we often show least compassion is oneself.
Another book/phenomenon that has speaking to me of late is “Very British Problems”. Let me tell you about this book / Twitter account. I’m probably being overly-serious about this, I do that sometimes. I know it’s meant to be a bit of light comedy – and it is, it’s uproariously funny, but I think it also taps into something that runs deep. I need to restrain myself from quoting a zillion examples now, but to give you a flavour, “Very British Problems” compiles the many examples of social awkwardness that – who knew? – we all suffer from. Such as –
Being unable to hand over the change you’ve just counted seven times without saying “I think that’s right”
Going into a shop in error but feeling that you have to walk around and browse for a bit because it would be rude otherwise
Losing faith in your delivery halfway through telling a joke, so opting to just explain what the punch line is going to be and why
I’ll stop there, but you get the idea. What do you think? Droll observational stuff, no doubt. But these snippets of insight also help me to realise something that we all need reminding of – very few of us feel comfortable in our own skin! This is a lightning bolt revelation! There really is a huge club of people – most humans I’d say – who give themselves an extraordinarily hard time about the day-to day idiosyncrasies of living.
Kindness is very closely linked – in my mind at least – with Empathy. There’s a new book that’s coming out in February next year by Roman Krznaric, called “Empathy”. On the very first pages, Krznaric makes something very clear – he says ‘Empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.’ So it’s not the same as sympathy or the Golden Rule – it’s about something more thoughtful than that – it’s the Gregory Peck talking to Scout on the stoop in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ speech – the one about not knowing what it’s like to be someone else unless you really try to understand them, walk about in their shoes for a little while. I can’t wait to read Krznaric’s book – he’s a very wise writer and speaker who comes at life from different angles and always suggests new ways of thinking about the world (take a look at “The Wonderbox” if you want to see what I mean).
The Kindness/Empathy relationship is most prescient in my mind when I think about how we all leap to judgment on occasion. I don’t think that it’s a case of anyone wanting to think the worst of anyone else, it’s just the lives we lead mean that sometimes our patience with one another wears thin and when we are tired, or emotional, or just peeved, it’s very easy to think that someone is being intentionally obstructive, or rude or whatever.
I love Acts of Kindness not simply because of the fabulous, life-affirming actions themselves, but because it brings to the forefront of our minds the thinking process of what it is to be kind and how much of an effect it can have on the world.
We’ve kicked off a smashing little initiative here in the bookshop which we’re calling #24daysofkindness
From Sunday 1st December (and going all the way up to and including 24th December), we have been providing two nice new hardback books to two different members of staff who work here. One of those members of staff is told that they can give the book to any customer that they choose on that day. The other member of staff is told that they can give the book to any colleague of their choosing
There are minimal parameters as to who the lucky recipient should be – the whole point is that it’s a gift to bestow as the giver wishes. As far as the gift to a colleague goes, I have suggested that perhaps it should be to a colleague who has been especially supportive recently, practical support, moral support, however you define it. Or perhaps simply a colleague who you think will really enjoy the unexpected gift!
The end result by Christmas Eve will be 48 acts of kindness carried out by 48 individual people. That’s kind of special.
There have already been some heartwarming stories and responses out of all of this as you can imagine. One customer lost a £20 note which was found by someone who works here, who then decided to make that customer the lucky recipient on that day – a delightful double whammy! Similarly, people who work here, who have received books from colleagues, have been surprised and enchanted. Hang machismo and keeping feelings in check, I don’t mind telling you that it’s been really emotional so far!
And this leads me to tell you about The Giving Tree. This is a scheme which invites
customers at Blackwell’s to choose and donate books which will then be wrapped up by staff in our Children’s Department and delivered by The Children’s Society to disadvantaged children who may otherwise go without this Christmas.
Our decision to collaborate again with the Children’s Society reflects the success of last year and the amazing work that they do throughout the UK. Their priority is children who have nowhere else to turn. Ultimately, they want to build a better childhood for every child, and believe that every young person should be given the chance to reach their full potential. With over 75 programmes and children’s centres throughout England, they offer care, respite, legal support and mentoring schemes that help turn lives around.
We are only too aware that many children and young people may not have the opportunity to visit bookshops such as ours. More to the point they may not even have access to books at all. We want to help change that, and The Giving Tree has proven to be a brilliant way to do so. Pretty much all of the staff who work at Blackwell’s buy a book themselves to put under The Giving Tree!
Having invited children represented by our chosen charity, The Children’s Society, to choose a book they would like as a present, we then hang their wished for title on a tag on our Tree ready to be picked off by our customers to buy for the child. There is also the option of buying a book not specified by a particular child but which you have fond memories of or feel would make the perfect gift, which will then be presented to an appropriately aged recipient.
So here is another scheme which depends on ongoing acts of kindness for it to be successful and we are so grateful to everyone who contributes. If you are not able to get to the shop you are able to participate in Giving Tree 2014 online. Anything that you can do to spread the word, be it on social media or in person, very definitely qualifies as an Act of Kindness. Thank you in advance.
Christmas is a time of joy for many people, but remember, Christmas is also an astonishingly powerful amplifier of feeling. So, if life is joyful for you right now, Christmas will probably make it more so. If life is a little tough, however, Christmas can make it seem like an even more despondent time than usual.
There are so many people who choose to sprinkle a little bit of generosity of spirit in this tumultuous world. Let’s start a kindness revolution – let’s blast this world with so much kindness, that we mesmerise each other with the wondrousness of it all.
5th December 2013
“24 Days of Kindness” has been going for 12 days now, with a further 13 days to go. Each day, one customer and one member of staff here at Blackwell’s bookshop has been the recipient of a beautiful, exciting new hardback book. There have been some moments of great emotion, surprise and astonishment. And there will be plenty more – right up to and including Christmas Eve!