When kindness in the virtual world becomes a reality

I recently applied for an internship with a forward-thinking social enterprise and one of the application requirements was to submit a piece of writing. There was no indication of what the subject matter should be and it took me a good couple of days to think of something to write that I thought might catch their eye.

After tearing my hair out for a while I decided to take things back to basics and write about something that’s been on my mind for a while – technology and our dependency on the virtual world. I was really conscious about waffling on too long (which I probably ended up doing anyway) but I thought I’d share what I wrote with you here. I’d be really interested to know what you think – any feedback gratefully received although please not too harsh! I’m also keen to hear if you agree with me or maybe you have a different opinion – please share it! I’d love to hear more examples of acts of kindness that have transitioned from the virtual to the real world! Here goes…

I don’t know about you but I am finding it increasingly hard to focus. What was the first thing you reached for this morning when you woke up? Each day, I’ve barely wiped the sleep from my eyes before I’m checking my emails, Facebook and Twitter feeds along with my blog subscriptions and whatever else catches my eye. Never before have we been so connected and so in control of how the world sees us thanks to unlimited Instagram filters, Photoshop and image crafting status updates. If it wasn’t for Facebook I’m not sure I’d remember anyone’s birthdays or get invited to nearly as many events!

I recently relocated from Northern Ireland to a city brimming with possibilities and excitement but it somehow feels tinged with loneliness. Everyone on the Tube looks glum as they do their best to ignore their fellow commuters in favour of their Kindle, iPod or copy of Metro. Despite being surrounded by people everyone strikes me as being completely – and wilfully – alone. And that’s fine if you are young, busy and able bodied with 500 Facebook friends to keep you entertained as you get from A to B. But what about people who don’t have access to all of this? What about the elderly?

 James Gray Photo credit: www.irishpost.co.uk

James Gray
Photo credit: http://www.irishpost.co.uk

In the run up to Christmas I came across an article online about an 85 year old Irish immigrant named James Gray who travelled to the city for work as a young man and ended up settling in South London, where he continues to reside today. Spending his working life as a butler James reminisced of a busy social calendar where he enjoyed hosting parties at his flat until, one by one, his friends and colleagues paired off and acceptances to his invitations slowly but surely dwindled. James never married nor did he have children. The reason his story came to light is that James took out an advertisement in the Irish Post to see if he could find someone to spend Christmas with.

The Irish Post is the top selling newspaper to Irish people living in Britain yet only one person – a woman in a similar situation – replied to the ad only to later renege on her offer of spending Christmas with him. In all of London can you believe only one person reached out to this man? No? Well neither could Irish Post journalist Niall O’Sullivan who picked up James’s story and ran with it as a main feature in the paper. The article went viral – global – in a matter of hours and resulted in countless Christmas dinner invitations from Co. Cork to Chile and thousands of Christmas cards from everywhere in between.

What made people reach out to James Gray was the way O’Sullivan told his story and directly appealed to his readers’ empathic natures. He suggested if anyone wanted to write James a Christmas card so he would have something to open on Christmas Day they could send them to the paper and staff would pass them on. It can often be easy to ignore calls for help that we believe we are too detached from to really make a difference. However, as James’s story proves, many small acts of kindness can make a big difference to people in need and can reignite the faith in humanity we’ve allowed ourselves to tune out in recent years. James ended up breaking his 9 year tradition of spending Christmas alone and dined with a fellow Irish couple who had moved to England as he once did.

James enjoying dinner with new friends, Marian and John Photo credit: www.irishpost.co.uk

James enjoying dinner with new friends, Marian and John
Photo credit: http://www.irishpost.co.uk

It’s so easy to share an article or an image on social media and forget about it once you’ve done so. I’m definitely guilty of this. But perhaps the global reaction to James’s story proved that it is possible to connect people online and inspire them to carry out an indiscriminate act of kindness they may never directly see the benefit from. I wonder how many lives we could touch by taking some of our online actions offline to help someone in need?

If you’re interested in hearing more about James and how his story touched the hearts of thousands of people around the world take a look at the original article here.