I stumbled down the stairs following the signs to the Northern Line, dragging my whole life behind me in two tightly packed suitcases. I paused to catch my breath, blow my nose, wipe my forehead and check my carefully researched instructions again. I was to follow the black line in a southerly direction and keep my eye on Waterloo where I’d change to the overground train.
After many, many blocks of walking and managing endless stairs at the tube station, I finally found myself on the correct platform, headed in the correct direction. I was very chuffed with myself. However, after a few moments I noticed that it was eerily quiet. I glanced around curiously – there were no other commuters waiting for a train. Not one. It was a Saturday, I reasoned, but it was also after 10am and there should be a scattering of camera-clad tourists by now and at least a handful of weekend workers. There was not a single other living human being.
I noticed a white board along the platform and scuttled over to read it. ‘Northern Line out of service for planned engineering work’ stated the sign, along with some tips around how you could find an alternative route. My heart dropped. I had nothing in me, having just returned from a couple of months of travelling around the UK and then Europe. I was riddled with a mixture of viruses, picked up in backpackers’ hostels while sharing with groups of young people from around the world. I’d been on an incredible adventure and was filled with enthusiasm and appreciation, however I was running very low on physical energy.
At this point I didn’t know how I was going to find the strength to force myself back up the stairs carrying my whole life – so I threw myself on top of my luggage and had a little sob. A few minutes later I heard the echoing chatter of a small group of guys. “Aw, mate. Engineering works,” said one, which was followed by chatter around the fact that they'd gone the wrong way and weren't meant to be on the Northern Line at all. I expected the sound to go away fairly quickly but it started coming closer and closer.
“Are you ok?” asked a husky East London (I think) accent. I wanted the earth to swallow me.
“I’m just fine” I responded, trying to convince both them and myself.
“You’ve got a lot of luggage there, where are you going?” continued the voice.
“Waterloo,” I answered.
“And then where?” asked a different voice.
“Clapham Junction” I replied.
There was a little bit of whispering about Piccadilly and Bakerloo and whether they'd have time. Soon I had three burly fellows tugging at my luggage and pulling me off the ground.
“It’s slightly off our route but we can get you there” said the tallest of them, while chewing on a McDonalds burger.
And so I found myself being escorted by three complete strangers all the way from King's Cross to my friend’s house in Clapham Junction. They were cameramen from the BBC off to film a football game at Wembley Stadium and were kind enough to go completely off course to help a lost traveller find her way. I’ll never know if they got to work on time, or anything else about them – just that on that day, their random act of kindness made a world of difference to me.
In The happy secret to better work, Shawn Achor’s research shows that there are four things we can practice – writing down gratitudes, meditation, exercise and random acts of kindness – to rewire our brains to feel happier. The power of kindness feels like the toughest on the list as it means we need to step outside of ourselves to practice it. When I think about small moments where people have helped me without any reason or agenda, these moments have been deeply humbling and incredibly human (in the best way). When I cast my mind back to that day, seven years’ ago, I remember how good it felt to be pulled out of my state of lostness and carried for a moment when I really needed it. It meant everything to me. And thinking back to the guys’ grins as they set me off at Clapham Junction, I’m certain the experience made them feel good too.
The more I think about it, the more I reflect that giving kindness can be so simple – helping someone find their way, sending an encouraging note to someone struggling, phoning a lonely friend or relative. While thinking about ideas, I stumbled across The random act of kindness foundation’s website – they have loads of wonderful ideas. I’m hoping to share a little more kindness in the coming months... I’ll let you know how it goes.