I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my friend Chris many years ago. I was 19 at the time and we’d gone for pancakes at G-Rays, a long since shuttered greasy spoon in my home town. I was leaving for college the next day, and Chis, having first-hand knowledge of my recklessness, gave me a bit of advice. He said if I could focus on finishing college, my life would be substantially improved. Of course he was right, but it’s not the relative merits of higher education that I aim to discuss here. Twenty-five years later, I’ve not forgotten his random act of kindness.
February 10 – 16 marks Random Act of Kindness Week and perhaps it is not by coincidence that I begin my new project on this theme. To celebrate it, I will be practicing a week of kindness. In a manner of speaking, I will be the instigator of several kind gestures over the next several days. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
From my cursory research on the subject, it appears the great philosophers didn’t have much to say about kindness (perhaps because it wasn’t as grandiose as, say, truth or virtue). Confucius said, “Forget injuries, never forget kindness,” but even a basic understanding of human nature leads me to believe his sage words were just wishful thinking. How often we hold onto grudges but take for granted the myriad niceties that come our way. In the modern era, Deepak Chopra said, “Giving connects two people, the giver and the receiver, and this connection gives birth to a new sense of belonging.” In my opinion, these are the broad strokes worth exploring – how kindness creates connections between people and a universality of purpose within a community.
Many scientists are interested in measuring kindness, however I don’t believe kindness need be reconciled on a balance sheet or solved like a mathematical equation. Why put it under a microscope and analyze it like an onion? (Although it appears that I’ve stumbled upon an apt metaphor here — if we can just figure out a way to peel away the human soul’s potential for kindness.)
While the generous philanthropists of our time should be lauded for their contributions, kindness need not always have a dollar value associated with it. We are all equal in our capacity to be kind, and the “value” of the act is contingent upon the means of the giver.
Likewise, we have all seen gifts of great magnitude and their ability to uplift and inspire. The 9-11 first responders were heroes. Mother Theresa was a saint. Acts of kindness are hard-wired into the DNA of some and manifest every day in their chosen profession. For those whose kindness reserves are more modest, it may be measured in two primary ways – time and money.
And the kind act should be performed without the expectation of getting something in return.
(There is one exception to my non-reciprocity rule that comes to mind. I was raised to hold doors for people when entering/exiting a building, but when I don’t receive the obligatory “thank you” in return, my blood starts to boil. This is one of the few times where I feel entitled to get something in return. In thinking this through, I suppose this example would be more a matter of consideration. Not as much about kindness, per se, as it is part of our social contract.)
But there are societal elements of kindness that are worth exploring. In a 2003 article published in Scientific American, Robert V. Levine published the results of some 300 trials he’d conducted around the world. His findings showed that people in Portuguese and Spanish-speaking cities tended to be the most helpful. Going out of one’s way to help a stranger is seen as simpatico, an integral part of the social milieu. Conversely, of the 23 US cities in which the ongoing experiments were conducted, New York City ranked 22. (In fairness, New Yorkers are taught from an early age that associating with strangers may be dangerous.) Another finding of the study showed that being helpful or kind is a skill that may be effectively taught.
It is argued that acts of kindness are not purely altruistic as the giver benefits from the transaction. That the giver may feel positive self-affirmation, in my book, does not diminish the value of the act. Some cry foul at the millionaire who donates large sums of money to charity, suggesting they do so mostly for tax relief. But who among us has the power to see into hearts of others to decipher their true motivation? I choose to look at the act and accept it for what it is, in the same way that one reads a novel without lending too much credence to the biographical influences of the author.
It is common knowledge that urban sprawl and the proliferation of digital communications has changed the landscape on our sense of community. And there are other factors that make it difficult for societies to peacefully co-exist (for example, sectarian elements within religious groups).
I read somewhere recently that being kind releases endorphins. I’m not suggesting we walk around like zombies with big drooling smiles on our faces. Being kind is a choice and to be deliberately loving in one’s actions towards another breeds tolerance and understanding and makes the world a brighter place.
What if we thought of kindness in terms of energy or vibrations on a sub-atomic level? Imagine if we had the power to create an aura of kindness to envelope a world that can’t seem to get it right despite all its professed wisdom and technological advances.
I realize there is certain futility in such lofty goals – but should that prevent me (us) from trying? If I’m being honest, I will tell you that I’ve pushed kindness too far down on my bucket list. Therefore, this week I intend to spend it performing random acts of kindness. Well, random to the recipient, but for me it’s planned in advance. I’m going on the basic assumption that kindness to strangers will be more impactful because it’s unexpected. Aristotle said, “It is easy to perform a good action, but not easy to acquire a settled habit of performing such actions.” I can only hope my meager contributions will be received lightly and, with any luck, paid forward.