Community Health Creation
– every day stories (or acts of kindness)

The thing about the BIG STORY in Falmouth and the small stories like Steve’s, is that we might be able to see that we have made a difference. With random acts of kindness we usually do not. We are kind to someone and then walk on. This demands a little bit of generosity – it must be a pure gift. We need not to expect thanks. We need to trust in the power of goodness. The well-known starfish story is a beautiful example of this.

Random Acts of Kindness sign


In 2013 the much applauded American writer, George Saunders, delivered the convocation speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013. He spoke from the heart with wit, wisdom and humility about the need for kindness and all the things that stand in the way of actually achieving it. He tells a story from his own life – the story starts like this:

“In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN”. ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it…..” [ full text ]

Two more examples of acts of kindness were given by Martin Wroe on the BBC Radio 4 ‘Thought for the Day’ on 31 January 2015. Two moving vignettes included an example of a shift in a community as a direct result of one act of kindness. Wroe also traced the origin of the Random Act of Kindness movement to the writer Anne Herbert who also spoke of ‘senseless acts of beauty’. Some of these are indeed beautiful acts.

Being kind to someone is like giving them a little of your love and gratitude for the world. So you need to have enough to give some away.  In his moving and inspiring book, The Renewal of Generosity – Illness, Medicine, and How to Live, medical sociologist and writer, Arthur W. Frank, describes the kindness in a medical encounter as consolation. It requires the medical practitioner to have “…trust in the renewable capacity to give ….. Generosity does not plan for the giver’s own future. It responds to the guest’s need.”  Crucially, Frank reminds us that “consolation will always go wrong to some degree, and generosity always falls short.” (p2)  George Saunders’ convocation speech reveals the lingering pain of his generosity fallen short. But wisdom comes from our failure, not our success.

So we keep trying and every kindness, every word or gesture of consolation, like throwing a pebble in the pond, will cause a little wave. And a little boy on the other side launches his toy boat, and our little wave makes it rock almost like a grown-up boat and his face lights up.  So the waves interact in complex and unpredictable ways, until perhaps a wave of cheer and consolation comes back to us.

Ripples in pond


Understanding the health of communities

Communities that are well connected with many stories of kindness are more likely to be resourceful, adaptable and resilient. These features are part of what is often called social capital. Just as financial capital enhances the survival and flourishing of a business, so social capital enhances the survival and flourishing of a community. Social capital is associated with trust, and for measurement purposes, trust among the people and the institutions, is often used as a surrogate measure for social capital. From the early descriptions of the troubled estates in Falmouth, in terms of social capital, the community was bankrupt.

Another way of understanding the community is as a living organism (see top of panel on this page). The health of the community-organism will depend on three things:

First, how much notice the community-organism takes of its environment: organisms that ignore their environment do not live long.

Second, the vigour of its circulation – that is how much the people connect with one another: are they shut indoors watching TV and ordering shopping online, or are they meeting other people and doing things together? The pair of doctors who set up the famous Peckham Experiment in South London in the 1930 were radicals who believed that people needed relationships to thrive. So they built a health-creating environment – providing the conditions that might lead to health (salutogenesis) rather than the slum conditions that led to disease (pathogenesis). They found that the key to good health was family and relationship: it was impossible to be healthy alone. One of the founding doctors, Innes Pearse, explained how children grow like plants – you cannot cause a plant to absorb nutrients from the soil, but you can tend to the quality of that soil.

Third, what is flowing around the community-organism’s circulation: is it mostly generosity, trust and love or is it more greed, distrust and fear?

This is really about the quantity and quality of conversations going on in a community. The innumerable conversations are the life-blood of the community and actually establish and reproduce the local culture – the values which inform the social norms. This is the case whether the conversations are formal or informal, in local council meetings, whilst waiting for the checkout in the supermarket, at the bus stop, collecting a child from school, in the pub, during a break at work, walking in the park. Much more depends on these interactions than most of us realise. There are several helpful ways of understanding the power of conversations. See the final section of The Cycle of Belonging for David Bohm’s contribution. Another approach to understanding is complexity theory refers to these conversations as ‘complex responsive processes’. Here are the final few sentences of a long and academic paper written at the time that these processes were first being described by Ralph Stacey and his team at the University of Hertfordshire. Anthony Suchman (2002):

“Embracing a complexity perspective involves focusing less on trying to assert control and attending instead to improving relational process. By reducing anxiety, enhancing awareness of context and relationships and fostering greater receptivity and openness to being changed, a complexity perspective helps to increase the resourcefulness, flexibility and adaptability of an organisation [and a community] – the very characteristics that have enhanced survival and success of organisms and species throughout the ages.”

 The examples of community change and development on this page – the story of the Beacon Project , Steve’s story of Social Prescribing and the story of Ellen and Acts of Kindness – though quite different in scale, all involve the process described by Suchman.


The lost dog

I was walking our young and very friendly border collie, Sheppie, off the lead in the fields near home. It was late afternoon in Winter and the sun was setting. Suddenly there was a ‘yelp’ and she ran across the field towards some bushes and disappeared. She had sniffed at an electric fence. I called and whistled and searched for her until it was dark, then trudged home alone.

Sheppie July 2015cropped

After two or three hours of worry we started receiving phone calls from friends and neighbours: ‘Have you lost your dog? She’s on facebook, I’m sure it’s her with those different coloured eyes.’

We later pieced the story together. In her panic she had run in the opposite direction from home towards the nearby town. A teenage boy found her, wet and muddy, wandering in a car park. A shopper who was loading his car gave him a spare dog’s lead. The teenager then walked Sheppie to his home. The family (his mother, sister and grandmother, dried her, watered her and a neighbour brought a dog’s basket, blankets and some dog food. They planned to take her to the vet the next day to read her implanted chip, but in the meantime they put a photo on the website linked with facebook. We had her back four hours after losing her and at least 12 people had contributed and felt good.  We put the story on local social media so the ripples would maybe spread further.  WH

Another long surgery

Some days are quite good. The day I am writing about was very … bad. We were a doctor down because of sickness so I had several extras. I was already worn down by the seemingly endless ticking of boxes and the fielding of bureaucratic queries and the trying (but failing) to get advice from a specialist about a very sick patient.

Doctor's Waiting Room CarolynYM-fullsize
Doctor’s Waiting Room by CarolynYM

It was already 7pm. The last patient was an extra. He told me how he could not go on any longer and admitted to suicidal feelings. This was the second suicidal patient that day. I took a deep breath and followed my customary way in helping such patients. It took 45 minutes. I made an appointment to see him in three days. He left room with not exactly a spring in his step but his posture had at least a shred of optimism in it. The door closed and I wrote my notes. After about 5 minutes there was a knock on the door. I made no sound. The door opened slowly and our evening receptionist, Annie, came in with a tray of tea and a biscuit. I was almost in tears. Then we both were. Not many words. Perhaps a half sigh, half thank you. She had stayed behind just to do this.