If I’m in the car at the weekend then I often tune in to Saturday Live on Radio 4—the presenters are cheerful and the theme is loosely about people’s lives so there’s a never-ending supply of interesting and surprising stories. One regular feature gives listeners the chance to thank a stranger who helped them in a moment of need and over the years, I’ve heard stressful tales of runaway caravans, lost keys, confused elderly relatives, empty petrol tanks, and drowning dogs, that have all been happily resolved thanks to an act of kindness. Sometimes I find the stories gripping and other times a bit mundane, but my interest stepped up a level when my cousin Rita was featured on the programme. She’s a teacher and described how she was with a group of pupils on the cruise ship Jupiter in 1988 when a cargo ship crashed into it just outside Piraeus Harbour. She and other teachers worked frantically in the dark to get children to safety as the damaged ship teetered with its stern already underwater. Then after forty minutes and with absolutely no warning, it sank and my cousin found herself in the sea clinging to a passing piece of wood. A schoolgirl joined her there as she spent a terrifying time alternately offering silent thanks to her Dad for making her learn to swim, and being convinced she was about to drown. Things seemed pretty hopeless but then miraculously from out of the dark, a pair of Greek fishermen appeared in a small boat, acting for all the world as though they carried out rescues every day. Thirty years later they were unlikely to be listening to Saturday Live but Rita was still glad to share her gratitude publicly, adding that there’s hardly a day when she doesn’t think of them.
Gratitude is a natural human emotion and it’s attracted a lot of research attention in recent years as one of the key elements of the positive psychology movement. It’s easy to parody the practise of being grateful as a touchy-feely New Age fad but there’s plenty of solid evidence that it’s good for us because it’s accompanied by a release of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that affect our mood and make us feel happy. And that applies not only when we show gratitude but also when we’re on the receiving end of it.
Rita found herself in a position where she wanted to thank a couple of strangers and there was no way that she was ever likely to reciprocate and do a good turn for them. I’ve found myself in a different situation in recent years. When I was in a bad state after my divorce there were a number of friends and family members including Rita, who showed great kindness and listened patiently (ever so patiently) when I cried, complained and repeated myself again and again. I think I remembered to say thank you but for a long time these acts of kindness left me feeling indebted and I wasn’t sure what to do to put things right.
A couple of years ago, I visited Japan and witnessed how indebtedness can be a problem there. Our Airbnb hosts gave us a small parting gift and I felt embarrassed at not having anything to offer in return. But later, as I read more about Japanese culture I realised that gift-giving can set traps for the unwary. If we gave our hosts anything that seemed slightly more special than they gave us then they would feel indebted and might decide to top up their offering. And so the cycle of gifting and indebtedness could potentially become long drawn out and stressful with no-one feeling happy. In the end, while it seemed a bit unfriendly not to have given anything, I was glad that all we could do was bow, thank them and be grateful.
Gradually, I’ve come to terms with the discomfort of indebtedness and accept the well-worn advice that you won’t necessarily be able to thank the person who helped you but that doesn’t matter if you try to pass it on to someone else. So if you’re reading this and happen to be one of the friends or family members who were kind when I needed it, then I want you to know that I try to pay it forward with gratitude. And if and when I do that, then your kind deeds are connected in a chain with people you probably don’t know, and will never know.
It’s this idea of connections that is at the root of my new book, The Interview Chain. In the process of writing it, I spoke to some fascinating people and each one passed me on to someone that they had been inspired by. In some cases those relationships were life-changing—an actor introduced me to the teacher who gave her the confidence to apply to drama school; a nurse recalled her experiences of volunteering in a Romanian orphanage and passed me on to the family friend who encouraged her to go, and I witnessed the gratitude between a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and the Scottish woman who made it possible for his family to rebuild their lives.
If you want to read the stories of these people and the others I spoke to during the chain’s 23,000 mile journey across three continents, then there’s not long to wait. The Interview Chain is being published by Holland House Books on 30th June and can be pre-ordered here or from bookshops and online suppliers.