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Reflecting on Tragedy

How will you be remembered?

I’ve been to two funerals in recent months. One, close to home, was for a fellow dog-lover that I would occasionally meet when we were walking our dogs. The other, hundreds of miles away, was the husband of a long-standing family friend.

I knew neither man well but I was struck by one particular quality that they shared – and the eulogies from their family and friends confirmed this.

It was the quality of kindness.

Each person who spoke used the word ‘kind’ and then described the smiles, the generosity, the support and open heartedness.

‘He was such a kind man’ they said.

How beautiful to be remembered that way.

Coming in the wake of the back-biting, personal attacks, ‘fake news’ and distortions of the truth that have populated the news over the past year, and the escalations of physical violence that have had such tragic consequences for millions of people, the focus on being kind was balm to my soul.

My mother and the Dalai Lama

When I was a child and scrapping with my older sister, my mother’s intervention would urge us to ‘be kind’.

Maybe it’s the memory of this that made me so moved at the funerals when the deceased were described as ‘kind’.

Though her emphasis on kindness was most probably a way of keeping the peace, it has very practical benefits too.

I learned from a TED talk by David Hamilton that hostility hardens the heart – literally. Hostile couples have a greater degree of calcification in their arteries than couples who showed kindness to each other.

The antidote to this is… yes, you’ve guessed. It’s kindness.
I learned from the talk that acts of kindness have two effects on us:

1. They affirm our opinion of ourselves as good human beings – the sort of person we want to be
2. They release endogenous opiates in the brain that are similar to heroin and morphine (which are also opiates). Psychologists call it ‘helpers’ high’.

So ‘hardening our hearts’ is not just a metaphor! It’s a physiological reaction.

Our nervous system is wired to be kind, particularly through kind eye contact. The heart gets the biggest effect. Being hostile has a negative effect on the heart.

Oxytocin hormone is produced whenever you make warm contact with anyone – smiling, eye contact, opening the door, paying someone a compliment… Oxytocin protects you from heart disease. It reduces blood pressure. It is attracted to the cells in the lining of the arteries and sticks to them and so the cells relax and squirt out nitric oxide – expanding the arteries and therefore reducing blood pressure.

The Dalai Lama exhorts us all to ‘be kind whenever possible. And it’s always possible’

This sets the bar very high. Commitment to ‘Always’ is a big undertaking. I think my mother would have agreed. But hold it as an intention – not least for the sake of your heart.