On being kind to others

Blame isn’t something I want to spend much time thinking about: it’s like anger: it is a negative emotion and, although it has its place, it can also do harm to everybody concerned and mostly it doesn’t resolve problems. Blame is often a knee-jerk reaction to a situation that we find difficult to deal with:  it’s easier to transfer responsibility in someone else’s direction whether they are at fault or not.

As a teenager, I found it easier to blame my parents for things that I thought weren’t perfect in my life. Retrospectively that was very wide of the mark. I was responsible for what I said and thought and did; no-one else was in charge of that aspect of my life. Of course, parents aren’t perfect – why should they be? They are human and fallible – that’s what makes them special. For a short while, I believed my parents dumped all sorts of negative attitudes on me – a low self-image, being an outsider, not being good enough. But that wasn’t true: I was responsible for what was in my own mind. Besides, my parents had parents too and I know they all had a much harder time of it than I did.

The cycle of blame incorporates a mistaken belief that we shouldn’t ever get things wrong. It’s perhaps better to deal with difficulties as they happen calmly and fairly, and not put all the responsibility for life’s occasional negatives onto someone else. I could offer a much longer list of my parents’ brilliant traits than the things I mistakenly blamed them for – love, loyalty, generosity, the desire to enable, to defend; humour, fairness: I could go on. I’d give anything now they are no longer here to tell them what great parents they were. So, thanks to them, I can try to deal with my own problems now by not blaming others. The one single thing we can control in life is our own thoughts and I choose to let negative thoughts go as quickly as possible and try to move forwards.

Of course, it becomes much more difficult not to blame others as the level of negativity increases. We live in a world where bullying happens frequently; it is often even accepted and applauded. It happens in the workplace; it happens in relationships and marriages, between friends and it’s rife on social media. Bullies are not always easy to identify. A boss might disguise bullying as strength, leadership, loyalty to the business or a need to control important outcomes. Internet bullies often don’t reveal their names and  form groups to apply pressure. Sometimes bullying hits the victim between the eyes like a sucker punch; sometimes it’s more like a slow-acting poison – you realise it is happening much later, and the pain eats away for a long time.

I’m sad to say that I bullied a little girl when I was eight years old. She was nine and called Rina. She wanted to be my friend and I hit her and pushed her away because it made me feel less of an outsider if she was even more despised than I thought I was. I did it twice then I realised what a terrible thing I was doing and why I did it. On the estate where I lived, defending yourself was the norm but that was no excuse for cruelty. I’ve been making up for Rina ever since by trying my best to be kind, although that’s no use to her now. I often wonder how she is.

As writers, I suppose we are ‘bullied’ by the odd cutting review. Amidst a throng of kind comments authors receive about our books, a nasty-worded criticism is not important enough to outweigh all the positive support. When I was first published, I prepared myself for a bad review by reading talented and successful writers’ negative comments. Someone thought Gail Honeyman’s number one best seller was so badly written that it wouldn’t pass GCSE English. Someone else remarked that James Joyce’s The Dubliners was complete rubbish. I think that puts the odd negative remark given to more humble writers in perspective perfectly, although I agree with my mother’s wise words when she said ‘If you can’t find something good to say, don’t say anything.’

I read lots of books and some I don’t like: they’re just not for me. I’d never dream of criticising the author: someone else may love the book and what right do I have to want to influence another reader negatively? It’s just easier to put the book down and read a different one. But I do write lots of great reviews. It seems that people who bully or who need to hurt others have real confidence issues of their own and perhaps being nasty offers them a temporary release from their own pain. It’s no excuse but it shows, perhaps, how important it is that kindness reaches everyone.

Shappi Khorsandi, a great wit and comedienne, wrote on Twitter this week about her feelings when she was first trolled. She said her father consoled her by saying that the trolls were probably people who kept their dogs locked up in a shed all day and she should ignore their comments as being worthless, or words to that effect. He’s right, but Shappi’s tweet led me to wonder what sort of people want to bully others, anonymously or not. They are clearly people who are unhappy. Like my actions towards Rina as a child, they hurt others in order to feel better about themselves.

Then sometimes, as a result of overwhelming negativity, tragedy strikes, most recently in the shape of the suicide of Caroline Flack, wounded by so much disapproval from others. Blame has been aimed at social media and unkind critics. But it’s too late now to take back the things that were thoughtlessly said and written. Things have to change: we need to blame and criticise less and be kinder to others. We can control what’s in our minds and it’s important to think good thoughts about other people and not revel in unkindness. The ‘Be Kind’ movement is very timely. It’s important to shift this negative culture of blame and shame, hate and highlighting faults. It’s time to focus on healing, health, happiness and compassion.

I’m a great believer in keeping ourselves healthy and safe in mind, body and spirit. Negativity and meanness create a bad cycle. George Orwell said that people at fifty had the face they deserve and I interpret that as meaning that people who have scowled for fifty years don’t look happy in middle-age. I worked with a woman who took every opportunity to bad-mouth all the people she came into contact with to someone else. I thought it was sad but it may have been no co-incidence when all her teeth rotted. So much bitterness can’t be good for us.

Once during my working day I offered a happy ‘Good morning’ to a colleague and she turned on me, snarling ‘Why are you always so bloody cheerful?’ I told her that I hoped her day would improve. Sometimes kindness doesn’t work, but I felt for my colleague that day as she hurried forward to her office head down, gnashing her teeth. I hoped that someone else would be there to give her support. She was a nice person. Some people’s problems can’t be helped by just a single moment of sweetness.

It’s not easy to keep ourselves positive all the time, but we can help each other. The world brims with opportunities for Schadenfreude, for rejoicing in someone’s plight, for heckling those in the spotlight, for finding fault, envying and baiting others. Blaming and bullying exists on many levels and we must actively try to stop it. Reaching out, smiling, offering a hand of support or a positive affirmation brings its own benefit. We can help people to see themselves in a good light or to walk away from toxicity.

Solidarity with others is an act of kindness. Sunshine warms; ice chills. Let’s all do ourselves and everyone else a favour and be nice. After all, it would seem that the bullies, as much as everyone else, need a gentle reminder that they are all human beings and the world is a better place when we all try to be humane.

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