In 2013, the word of the year was selfie. But the person of the year – according to Time – was Pope Francis.
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald – Pope Francis shows it is simple to simply be kind
As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni tweeted, these choices represent “society’s warring tugs”, the rival impulses of our age. Any age really. Selfie and selfless. Reaching out to gain a better angle on our self portraits, against reaching out to a fractured world. Italian journalist Fabio Ragona, in somehow managing to tweet a group selfie with the Pope, may have unwittingly encapsulated our year.
Narcissism, while increasingly overt, is nothing new. What is underrated and underappreciated is gentleness, kindness and humility, most recently demonstrated by a Pope who embraced a man with a disfigured face, washed the feet of female prisoners, reportedly visited the homeless in disguise, bemoaned the “new tyranny” of capitalism and warned against judgment edging out love. He has stretched out arms to those usually spurned, sidelined, forgotten or struggling. When a man wrote to him because he was struggling to forgive the thugs who shot his brother dead, Pope Francis called him on the telephone to talk about it.
Given that he does not approve of marriage equality or women priests, Pope Francis will never be a progressive icon. But he is still a remarkable leader.
This is because the Pope has powerfully modelled something too often missing from the visible face of the church: kindness.
It is so rare that it is startling. How often do we praise public figures for kindness? Aside from the Dalai Lama? Isn’t this odd given that kindness is something we all applaud and warm to, that even scientists and priests agree on the need for?
Christmas is the one time of year where Bacchus merrily toasts Jesus. A tale of pregnancy and poverty is marked with gluttony, a religious holiday with mass consumption. A festival of selfies will circle a date marked by a man who told us to forget self and to love others.
We might intensely disagree on what Christmas means, whether the idea of giving is swamped by piles of gifts, as well as what we think of Christianity, or the Pope. But kindness is something that binds us – as Mark Twain said, it is ”the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see”.
Even scientists are now touting the physical and psychological benefits of kindness, compassion and selflessness. Multiple studies now show: a single act of kindness can trigger dozens more (the same applies to acts of selfishness), and repetitive acts of kindness can make people happier, and less depressed. Researchers at the University of British Columbia asked highly anxious people to do something for other people six times a week – from shouting lunch to donating to charities or helping with basic tasks. They found this made people happier, and more able to overcome social awkwardness to interact with others.
Research published in August by Moynihan and Kohei Enami of the University of Wisconsin, and Thomas DeLeire of Georgetown University, found altruism at the work environment – and believing in the work you do – also makes people markedly more cheerful. In a longitudinal study of 10,000 people who graduated from high school in Wisconsin in 1957, people who said helping other people in their work was important to them were much happier when next questioned almost three decades later.
Even just thinking about kindness can rewire our brains. This is the point at which neuroscience now meets religion. A decade of research into meditation and kindness has mirrored the biblical prescription: ”Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, argues that we need to flood our brains with memories of positive experiences, crowding the interminable fears and anxieties out. Repeated acts of mental activity, he says, build neural structure – or rewire our brains. This is not about just ”positive thinking”, as it is ”important to face the negative”, but about training our mind to see the entirety of life, instead of dwelling on the dark patches. The brain has ”what scientists call a negativity bias”. Hanson calls his approach ”taking in the good”.
Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California who has been researching happiness for 20 years, found that people who committed kind acts once a week were the happiest; something that builds over time.
Look, I know much of this sounds cloying. But it appears that, while Pollyanna is an enduring icon of irritation – ”let’s play the glad game!” – the scientific academy would applaud her now.
Even sharp-eyed satirist Ricky Gervais produced a series entirely based on a kind character this year. Derek, about a simple man who works in a nursing home and cares for those in their final months, was unabashedly loving. ”They’re not going to be around forever,” he says of the wilting residents, ”so be nice to them.” (A nice contrast to the caretaker who muses: ”I don’t know at what point you can say life’s ended.”)
Derek was a strangely affecting character, who sat forlornly on a bed when his old friend Joan died, reminding himself she had said being kind was better than being clever or good-looking: ”Kindness is magic, Derek.”
Some panned this series as sentimental and twee, but the paean to the clumsy, shy and soft-hearted was strangely mesmerising. Derek’s plain face shone just as Roald Dahl described in The Twits: ”A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”
Kindness is magic, Derek. It can even make atheists warm to a Pope in Rome. Happy Christmas.