The strangeness of kindness

It’s not a new book, and it’s not a new concept either. People have been kind to one another for as long as they have been cruel. But “The Kindness of Strangers” by Don George reminds us of the times when kindness conquers cruelty, and hopelessness is eclipsed by generosity and compassion.

Commissioned by Lonely Planet Publications, with its first edition printed in 2003, “The Kindness of Strangers” is a collection of fateful and fortuitous true tales of travel and how it changes us. These 26 short stories of encountering unexpected mishaps in remote areas and discovering universal realities about humankind are engaging and motivational. Of all human action that my heart has known, undeserved kindness is the most inspirational and contagious, and these audacious, funny, heartbreaking, hopeful, and just plain stupid stories do a good job of communicating the simple truths that make a complex and serendipitous world go ‘round.

I found the book, or rather, the book found me, in a serendipitous situation not unlike the stories inside. It was as simple as the girl lost in the desert in need of water and directions or the guy locked out of his car in a rainforest storm in need of a hanger; a stranger emerged to save the day. Someone I hardly knew looked into my soul and offered me exactly what I needed. I was at work feeling woebegone in an abysmal valley of post-secondary stress, when I met my stranger; we shook hands, and soon began swapping travel adventures. I shared some  stories about living in Southeast Asia last year, when out of nowhere my new friend said, “There’s a book I think you’ll like. I’ll bring it for you.”  Sure enough, she was back the next week, with the book that reminds me what it means to be alive.

This book took me back to all the times that my life was saved by a stranger and all the times when I was that stranger for someone else, either wandering the world or on the road at home. Reading the relatable anecdotes, I remember how it feels to not understand a language, be totally disoriented, out of money, and in an incredibly vulnerable position, when someone you’ve never seen before comes to the rescue and changes the course of your life.

Featuring seasoned authors and first-time publications, each narrative in “The Kindness of Strangers” varies in voice and experience, as the travellers cross continents all over the globe. Some writing is certainly more engaging or well written than other writing, but overall, the only time you’ll want to put the book down is to go help all the tourists and refugees you can find in your city, or to get on a plane and explore a new world.

A personal favourite of mine was the story “One Night in the Sahara” by Amanda Jones, a New Zealand author. Although I lived in New Zealand for nearly 10 years myself, her story compelled me because her experience so accurately echoed the numerous occasions I was lost in the jungles of Laos. I knew the exact feelings she described; terror, inexpressible gratitude for undeserved kindness, and the enigma surrounding kind strangers that disappear as mysteriously as they arrive.

Prefaced by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “The Kindness of Strangers” emphasizes the importance of a good heart regardless of race, culture, or creed. Acts of kindness, when most needed and least expected, assign meaning, and create purpose and beauty from disaster. Not all the stories have happy endings, but all express truth learned about the world or in self-discovery, and for that reason, I tear up almost every time I read it.

None of the wayfarers’ tales pretend that travel is safe or the world isn’t cruel, they both frighten and encourage you to be glad you’re not in some of those dangerous circumstances. But through humour and emotive realism, one comes to recognize how perpetually dependant we all are on fate and the kindness of one another, and that’s what makes the kindness of strangers so strange.

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