Small acts of kindness that can change the world

We are more and we are less. This is the strange conundrum of our lives today.

We are more isolated than ever before. Nearly half of the planet is in lockdown and freedom of movement is severely restricted. The things we took for granted have been taken away. We know it’s for our own good and the logic is sound and yet we still battle with our emotions. We’ve been sent to our room, like children punished for a misdemeanour that is not entirely clear.

So we are more isolated than ever before. But we are also more connected. Rolling news reveals the deadly developments in real time — we watch the black spider’s line crawling up the graph each day — 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 500,000, two million people infected. Our phones vibrate with questions from friends, family and colleagues. “How are you? Do you have food? Are you sick yet?” We are in touch throughout the day and the night. It has never been easier to communicate.

Yesterday I finished my 82nd Spoon by Spoon interview talking to people going through life and career transitions. Over the last few days I have spoken to Dhaval from India, Roxanne in San Diego, Jon from Hong Kong and Kira in Toronto. The week before I had stopovers in Norway, Greece, Brazil, France and Australia. In one day I leapt from the west to the east, from eight in the morning to nine at night. It was exciting and invigorating. I found it barely believable that just a click of a button could transport me around the globe. And I didn’t leave my seat.

I felt like the narrator in Xavier de Maistre’s “A Journey Around My Room.” Written in the 1790s, the character locks himself away for six weeks, setting out to study his apartment. He takes us on a “voyage” from his sofa, to the armchair, to his bed. He is filled with wonder and delight, as though travelling through strange lands. And yet he remains in one place.

When I called Roxanne in San Diego I got through instantly as the signal was sent at the speed of light — 186,300 miles per second. The physics tells us that I would get through to Roxanne in California before I could hear my neighbour across the street. Remarkable. It’s only 144 years since Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. He would be astounded at how easily we can now connect.

It has also never been quicker to traverse the world — it takes just 23 hours to skim the 9000 miles between London and Australia. And there are more and more places to travel. The sky is always full of planes (10,000 at any moment). July 25th 2019 was aviation’s busiest day last year, with 230,000 flights. Our planet must look like a nest of ants from above.

But we are living in a riddle — we are more isolated and yet more connected. We are more in control of technology and yet less in control of our system. We fight the virus at country level, but the infection ignores borders. Governments prod their economies with blunt sticks — drop the interest rate, delay taxes, offer loans. They jab at one spot, but the hurt is felt elsewhere.

We humans are not good at managing the wider system. We struggle to understand the interconnectedness of it all. We still think like Victorians, at the top of the pyramid, not part of an eco-system we cannot control. We continue to use the paradigm of a factory machine — push here, create a result there. We don’t see how it all joins up.

Over the last few months it has become clear how vulnerable our supply chains are. So stretched that it takes a small break to bring them down. The fundamentals haven’t changed it’s just the fracture lines have been exposed. Our networks are so interwoven like knots of string, entwined together across countries and continents.

We saw this interconnectivity in the Great Recession of 2007– 8, the most serious financial crisis since the 1930’s Great Depression. Economists debate who or what is to blame, but one of the likely culprits is a tiny part of the mortgage market in the USA. Loans were given out like candy to people who could ill afford them. This created a housing bubble, which eventually burst and then “KABOOM”. The resulting fire spread rapidly across the globe, followed by a decade of austerity; the painful unravelling of this particular ball of twine. Big things have small beginnings.

Scientists think the current pandemic was started by the eating of a pangolin; a type of scaly ant eater sold in the Huanan market in Wuhan. Likely infected by a bat, the pangolin’s new virus spread rapidly in just four months, going on to infect over 2 million worldwide. And so to the Great Lockdown.

From a butterfly flapping its wings tornadoes are born, or so says Edward Lorenz in his chaos theory. Small things can end in a global pandemic or recession. Yank a piece of the string over here, create a knot over there. Pull out one Jenga piece and the whole tower falls down.

This could get very dispiriting — a thousand lurking things in the dark, waiting to snatch our ankles and trip us up. But I would counter that. There is another way to view this time in our lives. We just need to shift our mind-set. If small things can make so great an impact, then as individuals we also can shift the balance. Wasn’t it the Dalai Lama who said: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

At the end of the conversations I ask how my interviewees are doing in the lock-down. Everyone says the same thing: it’s difficult, but I’m finding my way, I’m getting a routine together, but small things make a difference. They talk about things they do for themselves and things others do for them, small acts of kindness from a neighbour, unexpected calls from old friends.

Three things happened to me, and my husband, this week. We have, at long last, had a delivery of food. Placed on top of the bags was a large bar of chocolate from the supplier. No reason given. Just enjoy. A good friend, who has been following our food challenges, organised a delivery of fresh pasta and sauces. It was like a warm hug through the post. Then a new neighbour popped her head over the fence a few days ago. We hadn’t really spoken before. “Do you need anything?” My response: “Oh just milk if you can get it?” A carton appeared on our doorstep that afternoon. My husband baked oatmeal biscuits as a thank you and we left them by their door the next day. A new connection and more belonging.

So many of us have lost loved ones, are ill ourselves, or are struggling financially. It is genuinely a terrible time. It is hard to feel positive right now. But I would suggest we go back to Alexander Graham Bell. He said: “When one door closes another door opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”

A great deal is outside of our control right now. But we need to wrestle back what we can. We need to change how we view what is happening. See where we can make a difference. Let’s focus more of our energy on what is good and less on what we’ve lost. Let’s try to move on from the old world and enter the new.

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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