I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you” when someone sneezes, a leftover from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying. And sometimes, when you spill lemons from your grocery bag, someone else will help you pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other. We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot, and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder, and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass. We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here, have my seat,” “Go ahead — you first,” “I like your hat.”
Danusha Laméris’ poem has become, I think, something of a contemporary classic. Judging by the number of times it has been posted and shared online, it’s clear that a great many people have found comfort and inspiration in its message (myself included!). The poem feels as if it has been written in the spirit of generosity it describes. From the opening, a gently inquisitive tone ushers us in close; there is a sense of conversational intimacy here, and yet the only “I” that appears in the poem is in the very first line – quickly, I gives way to you and then we. And so we imagine ourselves there in that café, warmed by coffee and kindness. We feel the steadying influence of knowing that someone else is here too, dashing after our runaway lemons. It’s as if Laméris gifts us these imagined moments – a kindness in itself – and with it, a sense of connectedness and shared humanity. I don’t know about you, but I find it almost impossible not to smile when I read this poem.
The other lovely thing about Small Kindnesses, I think, is that it connects us with the impulse to be kind ourselves. Broadcaster, author and Visiting Professor at Sussex University, Claudia Hammond has recently published a book entitled “The Keys to Kindness”. The book presents the science showing we are hardwired with the capacity and instinct for kindness, and that altruistic behaviour can be seen from a very young age. What’s more, the research suggests, we like to be kind – it’s good for us, sometimes in quite potent and lasting ways (there is, of course, a debate to be had about whether “genuine” altruism really exists or whether it is underpinned by more selfish motives – personally, I tend to sympathise with Hammond’s take, which is that ultimately, if it does good, it doesn’t really matter).
The Keys to Kindness draws on a recent large-scale survey of more than 60,00 people led by Professor Robin Banerjee in collaboration with Professor Claudia Hammond at the Sussex Centre for Research on Kindness. The survey found that among the sample, kind acts were experienced relatively often: 43% said they’d been on the receiving end of kindness in the last day, and 16% in the last hour. Why then do the gestures in Laméris’ poem feel so significant, so precious? Well, one thing perhaps is the fact that the poem focuses on acts of kindness made by strangers. In the Kindness Test, when people were asked where they saw kindness occurring, the most frequently cited location was at home. The places where it was witnessed least were online, in the street and on public transport. Laméris’ poem places us squarely amidst the business of the day, the interiority of being out and about, alone. We are on the move in this poem, walking, travelling, crossing paths. The poem takes joy in moments of contact, but also acknowledges the separateness that is their backdrop, the fault lines of division and the knowledge that whilst “mostly, we don’t want to harm each other”, sometimes we do. In this sense, it perhaps nods to some of the barriers to kindness: pressures on time, energy and emotional resources; concern about how we might be perceived (this was the number one barrier cited in the Kindness Test); prejudice and fear.
Laméris’ poem prompts us to notice and appreciate kindness; to let it be important. In doing so, for me, it also begs the question of how much kindness is prioritised within the social structures around us. To what extent is kindness valued within your neighbourhood? Your workplace? What about politically? Too often, in my view, lip-service is paid to the importance of kindness and compassion within institutions that are beholden to relentless performance pressures, that are riddled with undercurrents of fear, that uphold discriminatory policies (another blog post, perhaps). One of the consequences of this is that it becomes harder to be kind to ourselves. In my counselling role, I often see people buckling under the weight of external and internal pressures, fiercely self-critical. Sometimes this manifests in obvious ways: people neglecting their bodies and physical needs, people who are constantly beating themselves up for perceived failures. Sometimes it manifests more subtly: people who start to withdraw from and avoid things that matter to them, people who seem to be flourishing but live their lives in the grip of exacting internal rules.
My practice is strongly influenced by compassion-focused therapy (CFT), a central element of which is helping people cultivate a kinder relationship with themselves. CFT is rooted in a scientifically-informed understanding of the human brain as inherently affiliative, hardwired with the instinct and resources to build and find comfort in our attachments with others. Our capacity to soothe and be kind to ourselves is intricately linked with this system and the good news is that much like a muscle, self-compassion can be strengthened with use. Often, one thing that helps in this work is to find ways to tap into the felt experience of giving and receiving kindness and compassion in our relationships with others; to tap into exactly the kind of feeling Laméris evokes in this poem.
More generally, for me, reading and writing poetry is a fundamentally compassionate business. By this I mean it is a venturing towards feeling, often through difficult territory. A bit like counselling, a poem offers a space in which to lean into the different parts of ourselves, especially parts that may be squashed or censored or complicated. A space of receptiveness and attentiveness to others and the world around us, a refusal to be cornered by unkindness or silence. A space in which to reach back – through fear, through separation – and out. In the words of Ocean Vuong, “writing, if nothing else, is a bridge between two people”.
Behind each of the gestures in Small Kindnesses seems to be the message: I see you. “We have so little of each other now”, writes Laméris. It’s a beautiful line, I think, holding up such a weight of isolation and yet, in the context of this poem, bravely defiant, optimistic even. Let us keep making these “fleeting temples”; let us be together in them.
In this blog, I'll be featuring selected poems along with reflections informed by psychological theory, research and clinical/counselling practice. In line with my therapeutic approach, I'll be writing more about compassion and self-compassion in future weeks, and will be signposting to links and resources as I go. Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoy the posts.
Claudia Hammond, The Keys to Kindness. Cannongate Books, 2022.
Paul Gilbert, The Compassionate Mind. Constable & Robinson,
Thank you to Danusha Laméris for permission to share Small Kindnesses. The poem was previously published in The New York Times Magazine and appears in Laméris' collection, Bonfire Opera (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020).