Sunday 6 January 2013

Good Deeds. Good Cheer.

Like most on the planet I have a number of New Year resolutions.  One of them is to devote a little bit of time every day to reading something inspirational.  My goal is to reawaken, refocus my spiritual and philosophical life.  I found this incredibly natural and easy in Tuscany, living as I was amongst splendidly beautiful scenery, but in cement laden London it can be challenging. 

I’ve decided, too, that on days when I can’t put my hands easily on something suitably reflective, I will create ten minutes of quiet, ten minutes of stillness to empty out the yucky stuff and fill up with good stuff.  In not so many words a loved teacher, Sr Beverly Zimmerman, gave me this advice a squillion years ago, but I didn’t understand its importance.  Yet the older I get, and having experienced in Italy the increase it brings to my inner peace, the wiser and more generous her counsel seems; particularly for someone with high energy. 

Of course it’s not rocket science, Buddhists give a tremendous example of peace through meditation.  Anyone with a prayer-life will tell you the prerequisite for feeling the presence of God (or sensing the universe’s greater powers if that’s more your persuasion) is to be still.  Yet for a ‘doer’ and ‘talker’ such as myself, days or weeks can pass before I realise I’ve been constantly on the move.  The rhythmic repetition of jogging, singing or playing piano helps – it also provides good endorphins - but spiritually it isn’t enough because it isn’t conscious stillness. 

With this in mind the first days of January brought me to reflections such as these: 

“Your mind is a garden. Your thoughts are the seeds.  You can grow flowers or you can grow weeds.”  

Pop-psychology or spiritual wisdom the message is the same:

“We need to be transformed by the renewal of our minds because this impacts the way we think and speak”. 

This writer went on to say “may our thinking and speech become an instrument in the Lord’s hands…”.  I rather like the suggestion of a divine conductor - the idea we can be steered in subtle ways to that which is better for us and those around us – if that is, we hand over the baton.  Yet those with a more independent spirituality tend to think the correlation is direct - positive thoughts inevitably attracting positive actions and good karma.  Both work for me. 

I am determined, anyway, to make 2013 a good year.  So for times when events threaten to throw me off course, I particularly like this passage:

“Refuse to be downcast.  Refuse to be checked in your upward climb.” 

I like it so much I might print it out and stick it on the fridge! 

Unlike phrases such as “live and let live” or “don’t rain on my parade”… ok in themselves but limited… the concept “refuse to be downcast” empowers!  It challenges us to bring ourselves to a state of mind where provocations can’t tempt us to fall into negativity or despondency.  I’m susceptible to a ‘call to action’ so that probably explains why I like it, but whatever means by which we can feel empowered and peaceful is, I think, valid. 

My readings include work from poets and philosophers, but this week they are so consistently bringing me back to God I can only embrace it.  Another quote I’ve pondered upon is “Cast thy burden upon Me and I will sustain thee”.  Easier said than done, I admit, but genuinely comforting when we can believe it.  And this was followed by a challenge to the reader with: “How many burdens can you lighten this year?  How many hearts can you cheer?”

That pulled me up. For the deal is He’ll give comfort but you must spread it around.

Then I saw in the Guardian an article about a woman who tried every day for a year to do a good deed.  Immediately it struck a chord.  I felt I was meant to read it; not least because I’ve thought a lot about the difference in the atmosphere in London during the Olympics and since.  If you haven’t already, you might like to read my August blogs The Games Maker Legacy or Volunteer Spirit.  But my friend Lynne McGranger (who happens to be best known as Irene in Home and Away) described the ebullient atmosphere of Sydney during the Olympics as “like suddenly living in Camelot”.  London was the same, delightfully friendly and welcoming.

So every time I heard the media talk about “lasting legacies from London 2012” I wanted to write to Mayor Boris to say: how about introducing a Be Kind Day… a day in the calendar where everyone goes out of their way to be friendly and nice… where we find conscious ways to do something extra or helpful for someone else.  Perhaps it should be a spontaneous act of kindness to a stranger?  Or a planned, intentional thing that benefits someone we know?  Perhaps it needs to be a week of kindness, to give us all an opportunity to get over the line?  But you get the point. 

I know it’s only the 6th January, so no prizes, but with inspiration from Judith O'Reilly and these new year reflections, I’ve been experimenting.  Each day as I walk down the street I look around to see if anyone needs help.  Two days ago I found an upper-middle-aged lady in the supermarket leaning strangely onto the dairy counter and madly coughing.  For a moment I was utterly grossed out by the fact that she wasn’t covering her mouth with her hand… yyyyeeewwww… thank God cheese is wrapped or there’d be an epidemic…  but after fighting the instinct to walk away, I turned back to ask if she was ok.  It turned out she has chronic back-pain which all kinds of treatment have not improved, and a spasm had taken hold of her so she looked for the closest thing to lean on.  Immediately I thought of a friend in north-east London who once crawled, literally, up the street to hospital in severe pain after collapsing during exercise, with no-one offering to help or ask about her welfare.  I had been appalled when she described the episode, incredulous actually, but with self-disdain I realised this woman’s seemingly ‘strange’ behaviour had quite nearly made me act in the same dismissive way.  Ok, that woman didn’t need an ambulance as my friend had done, but the phrase ‘walking in someone else’s shoes’ really is something we should think about more often.

Later when I was waiting in line at the check-out, the same lady appeared behind me.  We chatted for a while and she told me various things about her condition.  It was clear she sought to lighten her load, as women in particular do, simply by sharing it; by feeling a little acknowledged and validated.  And I was reminded how isolating illness can be for people, physical or mental. 

Also isolating, and intensely sharp, is grief and heart-break.  Loss can cripple a person, the intense stress of it rendering them incapable of fresh responses or objectivity.  Every one of us deserves empathy and support when we are in the grip of it but, more often than we’ll ever know, millions stagger on without sufficient support, barely making it through, carrying heavy scars, and, sometimes, permanently losing functionality, hope and whole-heartedness.  It isn’t incompatible to acknowledge the pain in the world while still seeing ‘the glass half full’.  The Sisters of Charity I visited on Christmas Day know this from the tips of their toes to the tops of their heads, God Bless ‘em.  Nurturing and caring for the addicted and homeless, they are living examples that Hope is the beginning and end of life… that Hope is intrinsic to Love. 

So as 2013 kicks off, I want to thank all the people who have been kind to me when they might not have needed to be.  I want to thank all the people who scooped me up in a good deed or a loving act.  I want to thank many for their generosity and friendship.  I want to forgive (or at least begin to forgive) the people who have hurt me deliberately or negligently.  And, one day at a time, I want to strive to be that little bit better, kinder, happier, and more peaceful this year than I was last year.

After all, with or without a Be Kind Day, isn’t that what all of us want?




2)       A Year of Doing Good by Judith O’Reilly is published by Viking Penguin