Today, I write not from my comfy couch in Copenhagen but from a different comfy couch, in Pune – a city just outside of Mumbai, India, where I’m visiting family this week.
As I continue to reflect on my adventures this semester, I wanted to take some time to talk about an integral aspect of my experience – it’s something I’ve mentioned briefly in other posts: kindness.
We begin with the kindness of strangers, which is one of my favorite ways that compassion can manifest. My journeys around Europe would have been far more difficult without it. The Middle Eastern man who guided us through the public transportation system in Amsterdam (after which we got lost anyway); the elderly lady who helped us cross a perilous street in Rome; and our generous Italian host who discounted part of our room cost, sent his driver to pick us up, and extended our stay by one night for free at the last minute – all of them doing their best to make our lives easier in ways big and small, expecting nothing in return but a simple dank je, gracias, grazie, or ‘thank you’.
Kindness from and toward people you don’t know can also take the form of “paying it forward” , or doing the same act of kindness to a stranger that some other stranger did for you – in both instances, the giver doesn’t know the recipient, but such a simple chain of unconditional and compassionate acts can be a surprisingly potent force for positive change, even if it only affects a small number of people. For instance, I make it a point to always donate some change whenever I see a street musician – something I’ve started doing ever since someone dropped a few dollars on a piano I was playing in a Boston street market.
There’s a different kind of kindness (see what I did there?) that has also enlivened my study abroad experience – kindness among friends. I consider myself blessed to have exceptionally compassionate friends both at St. Olaf and through DIS, who are always willing to reach out and bring a little sunshine to my day.
When among friends, kindness is often based in the relationship – valuing a person for who they are, what they have done, or what they represent is typically the impetus for this type of act. But, like a random act of kindness, it comes from the desire to make somebody’s life better – either by offering them an easier way forward, giving them support during a difficult time, reducing their suffering, or just telling them how much they mean to you.
An act of kindness is not entirely a one-way interaction. In order for it to be received, the act should be understood as it was intended. When the man in Amsterdam offered us assistance, he wasn’t doing it because he thought we were weak, or inept, or that our group of mostly girls didn’t understand how directions work. Our host in Rome didn’t offer us additional help because he thought we were helpless students of color who had no idea how to survive on their own.
They helped us because they wanted to make our lives easier, simply because we were fellow humans sharing an experience with them.
And an act of kindness is just that, whether it’s among friends or strangers – trying to add a little positivity and ease to someone else’s world, whether you know them and care about them or simply want to pay it forward to a person in need. To interpret it as a reflection on the recipient’s capabilities or as an expression of prejudice by the giver is to diminish the act and ascribe malicious intent where none exists. While acts of kindness can sometimes feel like an attack on the self-sufficiency of the recipient, it’s important to understand that compassion isn’t meant to diminish either person involved in the interaction – rather, it’s meant to make the world better for both of them.
And kindness is the lifeblood of the study abroad experience – students helping students, roommates helping roommates, friends helping friends – it’s one of the things that makes the experience as magical as it is.