Updated: Jul 16
By Kaye Olsson, I Start Wondering Columnist
Historian Kate Bowler was devastated when she received a stage four cancer diagnosis. She was 35 years old, married to a man she loved, and happily working in her dream job. After years of fertility treatments, she and her husband had finally been able to conceive a healthy baby boy. The news of the diagnosis made her feel as if life was crashing down around her, forcing her to re-examine her long-held beliefs that everything happens for a reason. She wondered why bad things happened to good people, even when they’ve done everything right.
It can be difficult to accept things we can’t understand, especially when they are troubling. So, like Kate, many of us look for logical explanations for events happening around us. But I have to admit that attempting to make sense of the past two years has been a real struggle. The horrors of the pandemic, hate crimes, rising prices, and now a war in Ukraine have all made headlines. The constant barrage of news stories detailing human suffering has been simply overwhelming and, when describing my emotional state some days, the word “despair” often comes to mind. Why is there so much cruelty in this world?
Photo By Kaye Olsson
Kindness in the Midst of Suffering
As a way to cope with these feelings, I’ve turned to the words of the late Fred Rogers (of the Mr. Rogers children’s show). As a young boy, he once asked his mother how to deal with the sadness of negative events he witnessed. Her wise advice was to “always look for the helpers.”
The world is continuously jolted by events that are terrible and tragic. Yet, for every news story of ugly human behavior, there are countless other examples of people who demonstrate courage and compassion on a daily basis. These are the “helpers.” I’ve discovered that shifting my focus to people who are performing these acts of kindness can be a strong antidote to feelings of despair.
Photo By Kaye Olsson
Seeking Examples of Kindness
We are surrounded by myriad helpful organizations and individuals who are everyday heroes. Their tireless attempts to spread kindness and alleviate suffering are inspiring. Here are just a few that come to mind—I’m sure you can think of many other examples as well:
Doctors Without Borders is an international humanitarian medical non-governmental organization best known for its projects in conflict zones and in countries affected by endemic diseases.
International Fund for Animal Welfare works to save individual animals, animal populations, and habitats all over the world with projects in more than 40 countries.
United We Eat offers refugees/immigrants an opportunity to share their culinary culture and earn extra money by preparing take-out meals for sale and offering online cooking classes.
Random Acts of Kindness Foundation is a small non-profit organization that encourages people to make kindness the norm by providing resources and inspiration.
Even a class of school children is finding ways to spread kindness through the PepTOC Hotline. Simply call the phone number to hear recorded words of encouragement from these kids.
Of course, limiting our exposure to the 24/7 negative messages that bombard us each day will help. By noticing positive acts of kindness, we can gain a more balanced perspective as well.
Sharing Kindness Within Our Realm of Influence
If the struggles of the world are feeling too big to handle right now, why not try making your world a little smaller? I’ve found it helps to think of ways to spread kindness within my own circle of influence. Instead of feeling helpless about all the things outside of my control, this shifts my focus to tangible things I CAN do.
Donate to an organization that exhibits values you support. Volunteer your time, skills, and energy to a group within your community. Compliment a stranger. Think about your friends, family, or neighbors—what are they struggling with? How can you help? Cook a meal, drive someone to a doctor’s appointment, offer to clean house, or run errands. Give a hug. Sometimes just listening on the other end of a phone line can make a huge difference in someone’s day.
Practicing the Kindness of Self-Care
Helping others makes us feel good and can have positive impacts on our mental health. But we can also extend kindness to ourselves through something as simple (and as important) as practicing self-care. That is often easier said than done because, as women, we routinely put the needs of others before ourselves. But an empty vessel has nothing left to give.
Therefore, it’s vital that we periodically take time to rest and recharge to prevent ourselves from becoming burned out. Here are a few self-care ideas that have worked for me:
Perform Simple Rituals When the world feels like an emotional roller coaster, steady yourself with simple rituals. Enjoy a quiet cup of coffee. Water the plants. Fold the laundry. Wash the dishes. Let stillness surround you in the midst of turmoil. Simple routines give us a chance to breathe and have control over a tiny part of our day. This simplicity calms our minds and attracts wisdom.
Express Yourself Express your emotions through art, dance, music, or writing. Journaling about your thoughts gets them onto paper and out of your head. Physical movement can provide a release for pent-up frustrations and/or tension. Soaking up the beauty of music or colorful art can provide a much-needed distraction from negative circumstances.
Have Fun with Fido Spend time with a furry friend and bask in the gaze of unconditional love. Animal companions can teach us a lot about living in the moment instead of worrying about the future. The warmth of touch also releases oxytocin and ignites the pleasure receptors in our brain.
Plan a Getaway Treat yourself to a change of scenery. It could be as simple as a walk through a different neighborhood, a picnic lunch, or a Sunday drive. It could also mean traveling to a new destination—either solo or with a companion. Whatever approach you choose, having something to look forward to is a great mood booster.
A Final Encouragement
The stress of the past two years has been truly exceptional, and I wish I could promise that everything will be rosy in the future. Sadly, the reality is that we will likely continue to encounter difficulties throughout our journey. One of the greatest challenges of being alive is to witness injustice in this world and not allow it to consume our light. Life is beautiful—and hard—but these opposites do not cancel each other out. In the midst of a cruel world, I believe there will always be opportunities to spread kindness.
How are you offering kindness to the world as well as to yourself?