Cool to be kind: an experiment in niceness
Ahead of Clonakilty Random Acts of Kindness Festival, Patrick Freyne set out to discover how people react to acts of altruism on the streets
A young woman strolls by pushing a large pram. “We could follow her,” suggests the photographer. “She might need help getting it up the steps of the Hapenny Bridge?”
“Is it stalking if we’re following her for a good reason?” I ask. I’m simultaneously eyeballing an old lady with a stick. Maybe she’ll fall over, I think. Then we could go and help her up.
We are attempting to perform random acts of kindness in advance of the Clonakilty Random Acts of Kindness Festival. Hoping old ladies will fall over is a low point in the experiment. But don’t go away. Usually kind acts performed for strangers are a wonderful thing. This weekend in Clonakilty, individuals, communities and businesses host street parties and give away food and gifts to neighbours and strangers.
“In today’s world we can very easily switch off and do things that only affect ourselves,” says Ger O’Donovan, a 27-year-old teacher, Macra member and co-organiser of the festival. He wants people to look outward and build community. He sends me up a batch of little cards to use. They read: “Please enjoy this random act of kindness.” The other side asks we “pass it on”.
Graham Finlay, a lecturer in political philosophy in UCD, breezily recounts a number of works of social research that indicate humans are kind at heart. Of course, other studies tell a different story. There’s the famous “Good Samaritan” study, for example, in which people were put under pressure to deliver a talk about “the Good Samaritan” and then, while hurriedly making their way to the lecture hall, were confronted with a man who appears to have been badly beaten. “Some leapt over him to get to the theatre,” says Finlay.
But he’s an optimist. “There’s a lot to be said for ordinary everyday kindness, and not just the heroic throwing yourself on a grenade kind of stuff. Simple kindness creates trust and glues communities together.”
We don’t discuss where cynically performing kind acts in return for newspaper copy fits into this, but a few days later, on a scorching sunny day, I head towards Henry Street feeling altruistic.
As mentioned, serendipitous opportunities for kindness do not present themselves. Shoppers at Jervis Street and the Ilac Centre are not laden down with bags. The elderly seem self-sufficient, tourists geographically well-oriented. I stand holding a shop door open for a while, but it feels like defeating the purpose to waylay people for a conversation afterwards.
On Ormond Quay I pay for the parking of three cars with out-of-date tickets on their dashboards, but I don’t meet the owners. As I tuck tickets into windscreens, I feel like I’m doing something underhand.
Colleagues try to help. They suggest activities that are either impractically time consuming (holding a sign for someone while they go for lunch) or downright creepy (complimenting a stranger). In the end, the most useful thing I think of doing is distributing ice-lollies to heat-stricken passers-by.