Kindness matters. Feeling loved, cared for and understood brings about a biological, emotional state of safety in our bodies and brains. It is only in a state of safety, not threat and self-defence, that our nervous systems enable our cells and organs to recover and restore themselves. It is in this state that our immune systems work best to fight off disease. It is when we are in a state of safety that our bodies and minds can relax and heal from physical and emotional stress.
Kindness lies less in grand gestures than in heartfelt sentiment. A kind, calm voice can be a powerful antidote to anxiety and threat in the brain and nervous system. Listening to someone with acceptance, without rushing to judge or fix, can be an act of kindness.
Kindness emerges when we understand how someone feels and have a desire to want to make things better. It draws on open-heartedness, empathy, time, presence. These are states that are increasingly compromised in an era where being busy has been exalted, and it is in serving our own needs and desires, rather than our communities, that we look to find meaning.
In September 2020, right in the middle of the lockdown, I was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. Since then, I’ve had countless hospital visits, numerous tests and invasive procedures, nine hours of surgery and sixteen cycles of chemotherapy. I’m about to start radiotherapy and will need two further operations. I caught Covid in January, so it is fair to say I haven’t had an easy start to the year.
People often ask me how I stay calm and resilient through it all. Much of that is down to living and breathing what I have learnt and taught over the years as a psychologist, coach and mother; I actively regulate my emotions, I cultivate acceptance, gratitude and self-compassion, manage my mindset, exercise, and nourish myself with good food and rest. But there is something more significant that has sustained me, and that is the love and kindness I have been wrapped up in since I was diagnosed.
Here are a few acts of kindness during my cancer journey that have touched me and helped me recover.
Each time my husband asked me how I was and genuinely meant it. He listened to me with unconditional acceptance and gave me the time and space to describe how I felt, even when he had heard it all before and was immersed in relentless deadlines and unending zoom calls. When he held my hand, I knew he was in this with me in every way I needed him to be. Simply being there in quiet solidarity with someone can be more comforting than you imagine.
When I was snappy and irritable as the side-effects of the chemotherapy drugs kicked in, I’d apologise to my children, telling them I loved them and they didn’t deserve to be spoken to like that, and they’d say, ‘It’s okay, mummy. We know you’re having chemo and it’s really hard’. Forgiving someone and recognising they are struggling is an act of kindness.
My aunt, cousin and his wife, who both work full time, cooked and dropped off bags full of food twice a week for weeks, driving forty minutes each way just to leave it all on my doorstep due to Covid. Words like ‘Thank you’ felt hopelessly clumsy and inadequate. When someone in your life has the ability, through their presence alone, to make you feel safe and protected in ways you didn’t know you needed, it humbles and strengthens you.
I was surprised and touched when a new friend, whom I had first met only a month before I was diagnosed with cancer, sent me a generous eyelash treatment after we had talked about what it would feel like to lose them during chemotherapy. She didn’t expect or want any recognition; the reward was in the giving.
A dear colleague and friend agreed to safeguard a letter and videos I made for my children the night before my surgery. I knew there was only the tiniest chance I might not make it through but having lost my own mother to cancer as a child, I felt compelled to leave them a message telling them what they, and being their mother, meant to me. I asked her to share these with my children in person if the time came because I knew I could trust her to do this with empathy but without breaking down. What a burden this was to place on her, yet she treated it as an honour.
I’ll always be indebted to the nurses who looked after me in the days following my surgery, who helped me to sit up, to dress, to walk, who were gentle and patient when I was in pain and who cared for me through the night. The nurses who administered my chemotherapy week after week, took care to treat me as a human being and not just ‘work’. These nurses, often tired, overworked, stressed and busy, were able to show genuine concern and empathy when I needed it. How many of us can do these things uncomplainingly for our own family, let alone complete strangers, day after day? I sometimes thought about what will happen in the future if we allow ourselves to become so stressed, self-focussed and cerebral that no-one wants to take on a caring role. Who will look after us when we are vulnerable?
I have been moved so many times by the wonderful cards, conversations, heartfelt messages, kind words, food and gifts I’ve received from family, friends, colleagues and clients, some of whom I haven’t seen in a long time. I was sent so many bouquets of flowers after my surgery I felt I was living in a florist’s. What a privilege it is to experience kindness like this.
Each time a family member or friend, all with busy lives and their own stresses, checked in on with me with concern and love during those early days it was a reminder that our relationships bring true happiness; they buffer and sustain us; they nourish us, elevate us and we are all enriched by them.
Let’s glorify achievement a little less and value kindness and connection a little more. Let’s make space for us to slow down enough in our busy working lives to be moved by each other’s experiences so that kindness can emerge spontaneously and intuitively. Let’s make room in our hearts so we can receive kindness from others graciously, feeling deserving of it and able to savour it. When kindness raises one of us, it raises us all.