Have you heard of the Day of Compassion? No? With all the terrible events taking place in the world right now, it's not surprising. Every time I switch on the news, or read a paper, I see war, conflict and suffering. It makes me feel helpless. What can I do, after all? What can any of us do? We don't have the power to make a difference... or do we?
In 2013, over 250,000 students from some 200 countries took part in Wesleyan University's Social Psychology Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) hosted by Coursera. As part of the course, Professor Scott Plous asked his students to spend 24 hours living as compassionately as possible, and to analyse the effect this had on themselves as well as on others.
The results were pretty amazing. One lady spent her day tackling the problem of sexual abuse by raising awareness in her local community. A man raised funds for charity by doing sponsored push-ups. Another lady took to the streets carrying a sign that asked people how she could help them. She was approached several times and helped save someone's marriage. And yet another lady reunited a homeless man, who had felt too ashamed to contact his family, with his overjoyed mother. These students, and all the others who participated, may not have made an impact on a global scale, but they certainly made a difference to the people whose lives they touched.
On Friday the 15th of August, a second Day of Compassion will be held. Once more, students from around the world will be participating and this time around, I will be taking part. It will be a challenge to spend every minute of 24 hours living compassionately. Even taking into account that I will have to sleep at some point, it's a lot of minutes. And for someone who suffers from generalised anxiety disorder and social phobia, reaching out to people, quite possibly strangers, is a daunting prospect.
I guess that's the point. Many people will hold open a door for others, or give up their seat on public transport for someone who needs it more. A lot of people donate to charity if and when they can, take in parcels for neighbours, and help a parent who's struggling with a pram. Small acts of kindness matter. Yet, as the woman with the sign discovered, there are those amongst us who are so desperate for someone to talk to, that they'll approach a complete stranger. The homeless man only needed someone to listen to him and to make a phone-call for him, for his life to undergo a positive change. Whilst it is rare for someone's death to go unnoticed for months, or even years, it happens. How often do we reach out beyond our own circle? How often do we take the initiative to make a difference?
In my case the answer is - not often enough. Partly, that's because of my mental health problems, partly because I don't want to stick my nose where it's not wanted, and partly it's because there's so much need out there, even in a relatively wealthy country like the UK, that I wouldn't know where to start. I cannot help out every good cause, as I don't have the money, the time, the energy or the skills to do so. That doesn't mean that I should do nothing.
The idea behind the Day of Compassion is to create awareness of other people's needs as well as our own. It is also an opportunity to identify what we are passionate about. Last year, several students took up voluntary work, and not just for the day. Some became vegetarians. A day of reflection can give us a nudge to do something we've always wanted to do, but keep putting off.
I've put off interaction with my local community, because it's been too easy to lock myself away. So, I may help my elderly neighbour tidy her garden, or pick up litter in the park. It's also time to forgive some people who have wronged me. Nobody's perfect. I'm not, so I shouldn't expect others to be. As for the rest, I will see what happens on the day. Interesting opportunities may present themselves.
In the meanwhile, I invite you to join me. You don't have to be a student. It doesn't even have to be on the 15th. The world needs more kindness and compassion, every day of the year. If more people practice it - from a simple smile to a refusal to fight endless wars - life will be better for everyone, and the news will be a joy to watch. Or, if that's too idealistic, at least it will make you and others feel good, and that's worthwhile, too.