A compendium of thoughts on kindness

What we talk about when we talk about Kindness?

In May earlier this year, we were inundated with #BeKind posts on social media. May is celebrated as Mental Health Awareness Month and in the UK, the Mental Health Foundation hosts the Mental Health Awareness Week each year. This year, it took place from 18-24 May 2020. The theme, as you might have guessed, was kindness.

This isn’t one of those times we dole out a vocabulary lesson on the difference between kindness, compassion and empathy. Yes, the three words – often used interchangeably – signify a variation of the same emotion, but when you strip them all of the logistical features, they can all be easily placed under an umbrella of ‘caring of others’. And that’s what we talk about when we talk about kindness.

Go back in time and ask Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius and he would tell you how kindness is humankind’s greatest delight. But over a period of time, kindness has come to be identified as a weakness. In their book, On Kindness, Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor trace through history how the meaning of kindness has evolved and changed through the vicissitudes of time. So, what does kindness look like in 2020?

On making kindness meaningful, actionable and accountable.

“Kindness is everything”, wrote Naomi Wolf in her essay in What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self. There’s no better exhibition of this fact than during a crisis: kindness is everything, and it can make all the difference as to whether one of us makes it, or all of us will. However, kindness doesn’t have to be a grand gesture that requires you to self-flagellate. Real kindness doesn’t require people to be selfless, instead, real kindness changes people in the doing of it, often in unpredictable ways. 

The onus for kindness, however, cannot be on an individual and it certainly cannot be in our words alone. Increasingly, there is a need for our acts of kindness to be actionable and meaningful. 

This implies reforms on two ends. One, we need to be kind as a system. Individual kindness is great. We should all look out for each other, look after each other. Kindness is a powerful force, but it isn’t enough. We can be kind and it might not make a difference if the people your kindness is supposed to serve are still at the mercy of an oppressive system.

To that effect, we are still looking at people like they’re “others” – the ones marginalised, or less privileged. If we are to truly make a difference, we’ve to shun the saviour complex and look at people as people. Marginalised identities should not receive kindness as a favour. At the same time, what we perceive to be an act of kindness may not suffice (or could even be counterproductive) for serving the one it’s intended to serve. Kindness has to be meaningful, effective and actionable. 

Two, we have, for a long time now, subscribed to the idea of kindness being a weakness. Succeeding professionally is often equated with a brand of ruthlessness that only people who can shed all emotions on the battlefield can achieve. The ones who take mercy on their opponents are thought of as weak. Kindness is actually anything but. To stay fiercely kind in the midst of a metaphorical storm requires an incredible amount of bravery.  The dilemma is understandable: can we foster compassion when the systems are designed to reward those who show none? Where’s the incentive?

True kindness, then, lies somewhere in the middle of these two extreme versions. Kindness doesn’t have to be heroic – it just has to be actionable. 

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash


More to read on Kindness

  • This article on Maclean’s talks about the politics of kindness, and among other things, highlights the link between societal lack of compassion and epidemic levels of stress, anxiety and depression, bullying, crime, growing wealth and health inequality, more children growing up in poverty. 

         Read: The world is broken—and human kindness is the only solution

  • This brilliant, brilliant short graphic novel by Ezra Claytan Daniels that talks about the concept of “Empathy Myopia” and acts as an explainer for the “Just World Fallacy”, among other things.

Off the Internet:

  • Did you know that the University of Oxford has its own multidisciplinary empathy centre called the Empathy Programme which brings together medical practitioners, philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists for research work?
  • It’s likely that if you care too much, you might exhaust yourself. It’s called compassion fatigue and it’s legit.

Kindness Spotlight:

Adishi Gupta, based in Delhi, India writes Letters of Kindness (@lettersofkindnessofficial)



She writes letters to strangers who are looking for a little pick-me-up. To date, she has sent out 84 hand-written letters as well as emails and 24 short notes to people all over the country since starting out in 2019. She has also been engaging with the ideas of kindness, empathy, vulnerability, among others, through her monthly newsletter, Tender Tales

She shares with us what kindness means to her and how it pervades her life.


When I posted on my personal Instagram handle that I will be writing letters to people, I wasn’t aware that I was starting something. Writing letters & the ideas of kindness and empathy have always been quite close to my heart because of my own experiences as a highly sensitive person. The letter writing bit had fizzled out because I got tired of only writing letters & not receiving them. And I felt too ashamed about this feeling so I never brought it up & just stopped writing altogether. 

In creative coaching, I realised that I needed to get back to writing letters because it was something I held dear to me. So I really just went ahead, created a Typeform asking the questions that I thought I’d need to write to someone and posted about it on my profile. 

As for my fascination and commitment to kindness and everything that supports it, they are rooted in my experiences of the world as a frightened, neglected and invisible child. I grew up hating my (hyper)sensitivity because I always ended up being more hurt than I could handle, always getting reminded in direct and indirect ways that if I carry my heart on my sleeve, this is what will happen. Most of my years went by in rubbing this insensitivity off my skin until I realised I could not wish it away. I could either continue living with it while hating it or I could continue living with it while giving it the welcome that it was so desperately looking for.

For what it’s worth, it has led me to where I am today. I wish it hadn’t taken from me all that it did, nobody deserves that. But I am here. And I hope that I can try to make people like me feel less alone—people who are always easy to get hurt, people who find it hard to believe (& accept) that some people are irredeemably unkind and violent, people who hope that kindness and empathy become a way of life for all of us, in everything we do. And that above all, we practice what we say.

What does ‘kindness’ mean to you?

I engage with defining kindness a lot, but all I can conclude is this: it looks and feels different in every situation, with every person, and for every person. Because of how much we have pedestalised it, it is at once something that is considered saintly and also suspicious at the same time. However, I dislike and disapprove of these grand narratives of what kindness is. 

I think that kindness is acknowledging the flawed nature of the world and the people (including ourselves) and still saying, “I see you and I am here for you, while we work to make this better.” And this is one of the hardest and the most vulnerable things to do.

I think that kindness is acknowledging the flawed nature of the world and the people (including ourselves) and still saying, “I see you and I am here for you, while we work to make this better.” And this is one of the hardest and the most vulnerable things to do. Which is to say, it is anything but comfortable or pleasant, at least not always. But eventually, all of us are just hoping to be seen for who we are, while we become who we want to be. 

Message to the readers

To think that kindness is a selfless surrender of your needs & wants is an unhealthy idea to live with. I hope we can move beyond these toxic ideas and understand that kindness is, first and foremost, towards oneself. If a situation and/or a person leaves me feeling unworthy, the kind thing to do is to walk away. This holds true, especially for romantic relationships. We have been spoilt by too many romantic comedies to think it is our responsibility (and the kind thing to do) to stick with people who make us feel like shit. 

Featured Image Credits: Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

What Disney’s Frozen Teaches Us About Emotional Wellbeing

Disney’s Frozen movies depict emotional struggles much realistically than any other representation of mental illness in cinema.

[CW: Spoilers for both Frozen 1 and Frozen 2; TW: mention of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation]
In the song “The Next Right Thing” in Frozen 2, Anna is feeling visibly desolate and bereft, as she hums,

I’ve seen dark before,

But not like this.

This is cold, this is empty, this is numb.

The life I knew is over.

The lights are out.

Hello, darkness.

I’m ready to succumb.

Just a few moments before this, Anna’s magic-bearing elder sister Elsa turned to ice as she met her (temporary) magical death and Olaf flurried away, disintegrating right in her arms. It is a moment of Fridge Horror, as the full extent of her loss dawns on her. She continues singing, “This grief has a gravity. It pulls me down.” This debilitating lack of resolve finds resonance for those who live with depression and/or suicidal ideation. Fatigue, hopelessness, loss of interest and apathy are often just the tip of the iceberg — depression is capable of clawing its way much deeper into one’s life, impairing our emotions, relationships, careers — often irreparably.

FROZEN IN TIME: The show must go on?

I think back to the first time I watched the movie and what I was expecting would happen next. Conventionally, stories would exploit this moment to project Anna as a phoenix rising from the ashes. They’d justify this portrayal with a seemingly innocuous argument like “the show must go on.” It would be seen as a moment for Anna’s character to do something heroic, to seek vengeance. But not Frozen. “The Next Right Thing” is revolutionary in that it lets Anna be human in her moment of loss. It doesn’t create a spectacle out of it. It does not glamourise her sadness or grief by painting her as brave or optimistic. Instead, it lets her break down under the weight of her crushing loss, shatter and emerge from it in broken pieces. And that is what makes it real.

It does not glamourise her sadness or grief by painting her as brave or optimistic.

So, when she heads out to face the world, she decides she will take it one step at a time, “I won’t look too far ahead. It’s too much for me to take.” On the other side of the screen, the viewers get a little more comfortable with the progress they’ve made in their own healing. It’s silent, but it’s there.
Let’s be downright honest about this. When it comes to the empathetic depiction of people living with a mental health issue or going through an emotional crisis, pop culture is culpable of doing more harm than good. The narratives in the movies and media, at large, are damaging, often depicting people with mental health problems on either extreme: demonized as perpetrators of violence or worshipped as tortured artists. The reality, however, is that plenty of people live with their illnesses in an ongoing way, leading what we consider “normal” lives.
Even in Frozen (both 1 and 2), there is an awakening — redemption in the midst of a crisis and disruption. What a flair for the dramatic! But the writers don’t sensationalise it just to create a titillating plot. At least, not at the cost of authenticity. In that respect, the Frozen universe presents itself as a microcosm of the world we live in. A little flawed, a little damaged, a little hopeful. Let’s look at this in a bit more detail:

Stigma, Shame, Struggle

Society is so obsessed with conformance to the status quo that anyone who is born different or dares to choose a different path instantly becomes a target of judgemental stares.
In the first movie, when the secret of Elsa’s power gets out, she runs to the North Mountain and builds herself a glass castle. She preempts her fate. She knows that she’d be shunned and ostracised. Later, the villain Prince Hans leaves her chained and bound, confirming this theory. In fact, let’s consider how their parents dealt with the ‘situation’. As kids, the sisters used to play together. One accident and the entire tone of their relationship changes. Why? The parents decide to keep Elsa house-bound and isolated with an echoing “Conceal it, don’t feel it.” Of course, the parents were being protective and doing what they thought was the best for her. It is a telling commentary of how we deify emotional repression at the cost of our authentic selves, just because we don’t want to be the deviant one, the eccentric one, the anomaly.
Usually, I’d argue that metaphors are a dangerous territory to tread when you are dealing with a sensitive topic. After all, they leave humongous room for (mis)interpretation. However, in the case of Elsa, her journey perfectly encapsulates how people with mental health struggles live. They believe their behavioural patterns make them unlikeable, they build up walls (or literal ice castles), push people away, indulge in self-blame, try to repress their true feelings. They build a cocoon for themselves where they believe they can protect their loved ones from harm, even if it’s artificial insulation. Going forward, her journey of “letting go” and “showing herself” is a massive act of self-care. Or as Audre Lorde worded it,

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.

Grief and its many frozen companions

Going back to the time they were growing up, the dysfunction is hard to overlook. None of us escapes childhood unscathed, and the movie does not gloss over the impact of their odd childhoods (Anna was locked out of the loop and Elsa, as mentioned before, was shunned to her room) that they carry into their adult lives — learning, unlearning and healing — now that they have a fresh awareness of the possibilities of life. In Frozen 2, we find out that Arendelle and Northuldra had a tumultuous past based on deceit, exploitation and oppression. The sisters, then, also have the legacy of intergenerational trauma to carry with them.

None of us escapes childhood unscathed, and the movie does not gloss over the impact of their odd childhoods on their adult lives.

And then we have Olaf. If you think Olaf is just here for comic relief, think again. In Frozen 2, he is almost existentially ruminating over the impermanence of life and things. And surely, the song “When I’m older” doesn’t just exist to pepper the musical with some humour. The resemblance of the song to a near-panic attack is very obvious. The plot doesn’t downplay Olaf’s overwhelming anxiety in the midst of uncertainties and catastrophic events.

The most important of all: Kindness

The movies also teach us a lesson in kindness, more specifically, self-compassion. By repressing our true emotions and identity, we do a great disservice to our brilliant, authentic selves. Humans are a heartbreaking mess of flesh and bones and it is upon us to let ourselves be this flawed, loving mess.

Frozen movie

Elsa is finally happy in the enchanted forests, where her magic can flourish and be understood; Anna takes the reins of the kingdom of Arendelle. The message is clear: happiness carries a different meaning for everyone. We are all chasing our own definition of it.
Normalising the mental health conversation is an intended byproduct of the movie, as pointed out by the creators. The sequel is proof that if a story is told well — and authentically, it can be an unassuming paragon of empathetic representation. This heartwarming animation talks about mental health without ever talking about it. And in the process, Frozen serves its purpose: we all feel seen, and a little less alone than before.

Featured Image Credits

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Elderly Mental Health: Looking At The Gaps in The Conversation

Depression is not a consequence of old age. Here’s why elderly mental health is a concern for society as a whole and how we can go beyond the politics of ‘othering.’

In faded trousers and plaid
shirts they came,
tired and worn,
common in their fame,
each one the others only
remaining friend.
Life starts out as a newborn baby
and slowly becomes old men.

(From the poem Old men in the park by John Malcolm Pouch)

All poetry about old age conjures up a vivid image of being — of growing up and growing old. We are made acutely aware of the inevitability of the process. We cannot escape growing old, yet society places little emphasis on our emotional, psychological, and social well-being in the later years. In fact, in many cases, depression in older adults goes undiagnosed1. Instead, it is often brushed off as a natural by-product of ageing or confused with other illnesses. 

Today, as we slowly break the stigma around mental well-being, mental illness and the like, the young receive a fair share of advocacy. But when it comes to the mental health of the elderly, the public discourse seems to be limited to cognitive and intellectual impairments like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. What can we do to make it more inclusive? And what may be holding us back? Let’s see.

Elderly Mental Health: Putting together the words

Currently, 600 million people around the world belong to the 60+ age group. This number will double in the next five years. By 2050, the population of older adults is likely to hit the two-billion mark, with developing countries accounting for a majority share2

The WHO estimates that depression affects around 7 per cent3 of the global elderly population today. What further compounds the issue is the fact that the aged are more susceptible to other physical and cognitive disabilities. So, the slope is rapidly rising without adequate preparedness to handle the disease magnitude on many fronts. 

It does not help that several misconceptions and stereotypes have marred our perception of the ageing process. Everywhere, we portray growing old as an expected sadness or as an everyday ennui. More often than not, we assume ageing would bring an unnecessary crankiness. Considering that depression is the most common mental health disorder affecting the elderly, this narrative ought to take a sharp u-turn. Instead of viewing older people as the ‘other’ and assuming that they are alien to us, adopting the approach of ‘bridging and belonging’4 could do wonders in shaping the conversation and creating adequate mental health interventions. 

‘Othering’ on ageist Grounds

everyone is susceptible to experience ageism if they live long enough

In sociology, we understand othering as a process of stigmatisation or objectification of another person or group in a negative light. This comparison or exclusion is usually made to justify one’s own positive identity. Of course, no one is comfortable acknowledging their privilege. In this case, however, the impact is seen across ages. How? Negative societal views and stereotypical representations of old age affect people across the age continuum. The elderly end up feeling alienated, while the younger people internalise these ageist attitudes. The result? It hampers their self-perception as they themselves grow older.

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash

Research suggests that ageism may even be the most pervasive of the “isms,” surpassing sexism and racism. According to Ayalon and Tesch-Römer (2017), “Age changes with time and people are likely to change age group affiliation, with the passage of time. Hence, in contrast to the other two isms, everyone is susceptible to experience ageism if they live long enough.” And it can take many shapes, such as prejudicial viewpoints, discriminatory practices, and institutional policies that perpetuate negative beliefs5.

Moreover, the current narrative expects older adults to fade into the background upon retiring. Why? They are no longer the members of the so-called productive workforce. Such perceptions, policy neglect, and the consequent marginalisation could prove to be more unsettling in a country like India, which loves to turn the spotlight on its demographic dividend. This ‘us versus them’ thinking pervades the mental health landscape and policies and creates a seemingly irreparable rift.

Figure: Levy’s PEACE Model6

The Indian context

India is home to 104 million older adults, who represent 8 per cent of the country’s total population. The figure is expected to reach 20 per cent by the end of 20507

In the traditional joint family structure, both young and old were absorbed with mutual harmony. But as Indian families undergo the process of nuclearisation with limited outlets to absorb the old parents, the feelings of loneliness, rejection, and social isolation also come to the fore. As a matter of fact, even in residential and community care institutions, senior citizens face disrespect and are habitually treated as a burden. 

At the same time, being with the family does not guarantee emotional support or social security. The elderly can also face many forms of exploitation and abuse from their near and dear ones. 

The bigger picture, The Way Out

We need to adopt a multi-faceted approach to promote the general mental health and quality of life of the seniors. The presence of older people and the problems they encounter in their daily life have far-reaching impacts on the structure and functions of the economy and society. Also, “old people” are who we all will become, which further reinstates that elderly mental health is a psychosocial and structural problem. So, how can we address it?

Medical research is an integral part of the solution architecture, but we also need interventions that go beyond just psychopathology. Our respect for the elderly should translate into their representation across popular culture and the media. Sometimes, even the most well-intentioned advocates can further negative generalisations, and positive messaging is inherent to creating greater awareness around this issue.

Therefore, we need to question the depiction of the elderly as helpless victims.

Photo by Eddy Klaus on Unsplash

Tweaking the existing systems

We need to come up with innovative solutions to combat elderly loneliness. For example, Age UK runs a unique Befriending Service that pairs older adults with a friend who visits them once or twice a week for a cup of tea, a recreational activity, or an outing. Alternatively, the local centres can arrange such friendly conversations over the phone or online. Of course, we will need to consider the fabric of Indian family systems and adapt the idea, but it is a good starting point nevertheless.

Another example of a successful social integration programme in the UK is the University of Third Age (U3A). It organizes learning and development courses specifically for older adults who want to pick up a new skill or simply share their knowledge with others. Technological advancement has made possible the creation of a nationwide network and discussion forums where they can exchange ideas about arts, crafts, gardening, literature, computers, or anything else of their interest. We could learn from these programmes and come up with initiatives that address the Indian context.

After all, this is stating the obvious: we need improved access to personal and psychological counselling services. Talking to trained therapists can provide a judgement-free environment and help us find ways of dealing with our emotional issues. 

Our solutions should embody the values of compassion, company and care to make room for everyone’s struggles. 

After all, we all deserve to live with dignity and assert our right to holistic care, irrespective of our age and other biological or social labels. 


  1. https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/full/10.1377/hlthaff.2015.0314
  2. https://www.who.int/ageing/features/faq-ageism/
  3. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-of-older-adults
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/nov/08/us-vs-them-the-sinister-techniques-of-othering-and-how-to-avoid-them
  5. https://www.st-va.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5550624/#CR3
  6. https://academic.oup.com/gerontologist/article/58/2/226/2632116
  7. https://www.helpageindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/ELDER-ABUSE-IN-INDIA-2018-A-HelpAge-India-report.pdf

If you or someone you know is dealing with depression, suicidal ideation or similar symptoms, please reach out to iCall helpline at 022-25521111 (available 8 am – 10 pm, Monday to Saturday in India), The Samaritans. (116 123 Or email jo@samaritans.org.uk) in the UK.

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