Call To Arms
Embrace a Kindness Revolution
By Erik Hanson, Chris Bratseth, Val Litwin, Brad Stokes
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2005 the authors
All rights reserved.
LOVE DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS
Kindness: a language the deaf can hear and the blind can see.
In my carefree years of student travel, skipping across the globe like a smooth stone on the surface of the ocean, I learned there was one item more essential to any trip than sunblock or a phrase book: a compassionate heart. Being possessed of a jovial and generous nature helped at every border crossing and the language of kindness was understood in every culture. It required no class time to master and delivered the equivalent of a "get-out-of-jail-free card" whenever derailed communications begged forgiveness. When you think you're asking how much a plate of rice and beans cost, but in fact are offering to buy the poor guy's pants, the value of a smile and a light heart are a price above rubies (or rupees).
One summer, while exploring San Pedro, a small village on Lago Atitlan in Guatemala, I was the recipient of a random act of kindness that left an indelible mark. I had already delayed my departure from the lakeside village — I couldn't bring myself to break orbit — so I stayed on to take in an all-day concert in a field of sun-baked grass. When it was over I began the 10-minute walk back to my cabina along a dark trail, head ringing with happy rhythms and voices. Out of the still night came a low growling as a pack of crazed dogs circled. They lunged at me; their saliva trickling down my shins. It was easily one of the most terrifying moments of my life. I was sure I was about to be knocked over, pounced upon, and ripped to shreds. As they formed a crescent, pinning me to a nearby fence, I inched toward the gate, slipping through it to the safety of a shack on the other side. I banged frantically on the door. A grizzled señor answered my distressed pounding and, seeing the frothing dogs in the distance, pulled me inside. He said nothing and I said nothing. Instead, he gestured toward his bed, a wool blanket on a piece of plywood resting on two cinder blocks. I left the next morning. I don't think we exchanged a single word.
Kindness is indeed a language of its own, though its vocabulary is often composed of silent human gestures. These articulate moments, though unuttered, still communicate deep connection and caring and have the power to transcend beliefs, customs, and protocol. But how do we cultivate it? Consciously live it? This chapter offers anecdotes that suggest you explore the following options: be open to every possibility, be experimental, refuse to take yourself too seriously, commit daily random acts of kindness, embrace the joy of doing so, and prepare to receive kind acts as well.
Consider this example. After the tragedy of September 11th, hundreds of Americans gave blood to aid the wounded (so much of it, in fact, it couldn't all be used) — evidence of our capacity to do good in a world plagued by an ailing environment, war, disease, and poverty. But it was news of the non-Muslim Americans who stood guard over mosques that registered an even more profound act of love. This gesture shone like a brilliant sunrise after a long, dark night: it acknowledged differences in culture, honored our human commitment to abhor all acts of violence, and banished the specter of terrorism that haunted our most sacred spaces. That this deeply compassionate act was so unexpected only amplified its significance.
While the growth of global movements promoting compassion suggests kindness is making a comeback, our planet is still undeniably at a dangerous crossroads. What choices will we make as a civilization? Will the human spirit and the good works of dedicated individuals continue to give us the hope and inspiration we need to counter these threats? I believe the answer is yes. Read on to learn how to be a part of it.
* * *
The alarm goes off at 4:00 a.m., but Chris and I aren't sleeping. I have been grinding my teeth since midnight. My speech for the press conference has been looping itself in my head all night and we are due at the studio in Vancouver in 15 minutes for a national interview. I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. It is day one and already we are stressed. We are on the brink of three months of nonstop kindness across a sprawling country. There are seven of us in a motorhome whose manual recommends no more than two go on extended journeys, and our tour budget still lacks gas and food money for anything beyond the first 600 miles — we have yet to negotiate another cash infusion from our financial sponsor to ensure we'll catch a glimpse of the Atlantic. Have we gnawed off more than we can chew? Absolutely, and that's the way we like it.
Chris and I begin to assemble our outfits/uniforms: crisp red Kindness Crew T-shirts, shorts (pants when it starts to snow) and sneakers. This is our Superman ensemble, the Can-I-Help-You? get-up that has people coming up to us every hour saying, "Hey, I saw you guys on the news. You know, I have a friend who needs some help ..."
We go over the points we want to address during the interview.
"Val, remind me to say hi to my mom," Chris says.
We slip effortlessly through the pre-sunrise silence of the downtown core in a cab. Cappuccino machines are still hours away from their first shot of the day and stacks of unread papers sit on every other corner.
At the studios we sprint up the steps to the security guard who greets us with a "Whoa, what's the big rush guys? Do you have an appointment?"
"We're here to do an interview with ..." Chris starts.
"Kindness Crew, right?" We nod. "Yeah, just go through those glass doors, take the elevator to the fifth, follow the signs."
The room rigged for the interview is flooded with light, a little too much light for 4:00 a.m. The interviewer is in a more civilized time zone. After a few audible gulps of coffee, a cameraman comes over and walks us through what will happen.
"You're going to hear a female voice in the earpiece in about five minutes. When she speaks to you, just look at the camera like you're looking at her." Sounded easy.
Despite the relative emptiness of the room — one camera, two chairs, and three bodies — I am suddenly acutely aware there will be millions of eyes on the other side of the lens in a few moments. My heart begins to flutter. I close my eyes and am silently grateful for the fact that our mission can be articulated in six words: to connect the world through kindness.
"Let's have fun, brother," Chris says patting me on the back. Chris dispels all my anxiety with one moment of contact. I feel a surge of confidence — I'm having the time of my life.
The intro music fades and a slick voice announces, "And with us this morning are two members of the Kindness Crew. Remember their faces, they might be offering you a massage in the next three months. Good morning, Kindness Crew! Did our guys get you two some coffee? It's about 4:20 a.m. for you, isn't it? What a huge project to undertake. Tell us about the tour."
Chris and I simultaneously correct our posture and Chris launches into a practiced response.
"The Extreme Kindness Tour is a non-profit, three-month gauntlet of goodwill. We'll be cutting wheat in the west and cleaning fish in the east."
The voice without a face sounds impressed. "Why are four guys in their 20s doing this instead of launching careers?"
I crack a huge smile and admit, "We're addicted to kindness and want others to experience the same high. People jump into careers too quickly anyway. We're doing what people always say they'll do some distant day in the future, but we're doing it today."
"What do your parents think about all this?"
"They thought we were crazy a few months ago, but now they're watching us on the morning news." Chris and I both mouth "Hi, Mom."
"I'm sure they're proud. Good luck and keep us posted."
It wasn't even 5:00 a.m. and already households across the country knew we were coming. We hadn't a clue, but e-mails were streaming in. Not a bad day's work before breakfast.
A press conference is scheduled for 10:00 a.m., and it is beginning to look like it might be standing room only. Friends and family; sponsors; members of the media; Lorraine, our publicist; and even a few football celebrities are tucking themselves into the crowd. Erik's uncle and cousins are giving us the thumbs-up every time they think one of us is looking their way. The president of one of our flagship sponsors is about to introduce us.
Reporters poise pens above notepads and dust lenses, hoping to catch something worthy of the evening news. The head table is rigged with microphones and name cards so the press can address us individually. Silver water decanters stand at the ready, dripping with condensation, and a giant video screen looms behind the table. My three best friends and I are about to make known our intention to hug strangers for three months straight, or at least until our shoulders dislocate.
But first we have to warm up the crowd. Not five minutes into the press conference, Chris has everyone up on their feet massaging their neighbor to "Flight of the Valkyries."
"We want people to experience the joy of being kind, so it has to start right now!" As Chris says this he gently starts chopping the neck muscles of an audience member like a professional masseur. The network camera people detach their equipment from their tripods and run over to get a close-up. Now it's time for the third degree.
The first question comes flying out of the crowd: "Why extreme kindness, guys?"
I love this question. "Because the very pairing of the two words is unusual and ignites curiosity. We're trying to breathe new life into volunteerism — a word that makes most people roll their eyes. Kindness is an extreme adventure, and we hope to hook the next generation of do-gooders and show them that giving back can be outrageously fun."
"What if someone doesn't want your kindness? What if someone refuses a hug?" a light-hearted cynic asks amid the feeding frenzy of cameras. There are a few giggles.
Brad picks up the humor in the reporter's voice, but treats the question seriously, at first.
"You have to respect people's boundaries; you've got to be able read them. A hug is perfect in some cases, but in others, the greatest act of kindness is to do or say nothing." Brad continues, trying to look stern. "Our research has shown that smiles are universally well received, though. I've never seen anyone refuse a smile!" Every reporter in the house is scribbling.
"How will you judge whether the tour is successful or not?" a female voice asks.
"We're doing that in a number of ways," answers Erik. "The Web site will track visitors, and we hope people will come and post their stories on the message board. Another indicator for us will be the media coverage. We've said our goal is to connect the world through kindness. The tour's success will also be a function of how far that message has traveled. So I guess a big part of the tour's success lies in your hands." Erik smiles at the reporters and cameras, clearly pleased with his answer.
The media's appetite appears satisfied for now and it's time to hit the streets and unleash some curbside compassion. We start in front of the hotel with muffins and coffee for cab drivers, those stoic couriers of crusty commuters, rush hour yogis who twist and turn through raging traffic. When was the last time they got thanked?
A bevy of strong-armed quarterbacks line both sides of the street ready to launch high-speed, surface-to-air muffins. With uncanny precision they hurl, hut, and hike pastries inside moving cars. Drivers, recognizing their local heroes, beg for a snack "to go" as they call plays.
Cab drivers aren't the only ones playing wide receiver. Exhausted moms are snagging passes, couriers are biking with no hands so they can intercept the odd Hail Mary, and urban hikers are taking hand-offs. The morning coffee break has been redefined and "running out to grab a snack" has new meaning.
The next stop is a construction site a few blocks from the hotel. We carry balloons and coolers full of iced tea and peanut butter sandwiches over our shoulders, strutting to a Village People soundtrack only we can hear. The second the workers see food they drop their noisy tools; it is like turning on a television in a room full of screaming children. Lunch is a hit; peanut-buttery conversations ensue and sticky, stiff mouths are loosened with iced tea.
Only one worker has not yet crumbled in the face of compassion, and Brad can smell it like a shark smells blood. Brad approaches like a trainer would a trapped animal. This man will have to hug Brad to claim the iced tea. He raises his arms above his head, turns his head slowly to the side and sniffs his armpit. He nods; he is ready for his hug. Laughter fills the building and workers buzz their skill-saws and drills in approval.
The two embrace and the iced tea is handed over. Brad — outmaneuvered and outplayed — walks by me muttering something about judging a book by its cover. For the network cameras, the image of one burly worker standing with a fistful of pink and yellow helium balloons sums up the visit perfectly.
That afternoon we launch a new weapon, a Kindness Protest, that is a different breed of demonstration altogether. We pick a busy street corner and let her fly. Will serial shoppers open their hearts or will we get crushed under a stampede of stilettos? I change from flip-flops to sneakers. With 20 colorful sheets of cardboard stapled to hockey sticks we set up camp. People are out in droves and the sun is blistering hot. Dripping ice cream cones paint abstract art on the sidewalk. Erik, Chris, Brad, and I each take a corner of the intersection and start yelling at the top of our lungs.
"Who wants to change the world?" Erik bellows. People look at the signs and start to giggle. But, as scientists have observed, in large groups people's collective IQ rises; the afternoon strollers know what is up.
A woman approaches me and says, "I want the one that says YOU'RE HAVING A FABULOUS HAIR DAY!"
"Absolutely. Just pass it off to Brad on the other side." Just three lights have changed since we arrived and our crew has practically blocked off one of the busiest intersections in the city.
As serendipity would have it, a local hip hop VJ stumbles across our scene, grabs a sign that says, CALL YOUR MOTHER! and busts loose.
"Take time to be kind and rewind the video," he raps for the camera, pulling dreadlocks away from his face. "I never thought I'd be rhymin' 'bout kindness. What's this about again?" He is out for a mellow afternoon stroll, baggy white shirt wafting in the wind and knitted cap pulled down over his dreads, almost seven feet tall and ready to join the fun.
I let the tour T-shirt speak for itself as he reads the back.
"KINDNESS 24/7. That's dope. That's fresh," he says.
"You just walked into our Kindness Protest. We occupy four corners of an intersection, people choose a sign while the light is red, then walk the signs across the street, hooting and hollering, and drop them off on the other side. The world's shortest and nicest demonstration!" He seems impressed but is soon mobbed by a pack of female fans that want him to sign autographs.
I grab a sign from the hands of a giddy woman from Texas who says, "Where's ma huuuug, sweetie?" in a perfect Texan twang. I look at the space between my open arms as her husband takes a picture.
I can hear Chris across the street, yelling at the top of his lungs like a town crier, "Embrace each other. Hug each other!" Cars are laying on horns to oblige signs that say HONK FOR KINDNESS. A tourist from Mexico is on top of a garbage can clapping and yelling "Bravo! Belissimo!" Young Asian tourists, all wearing identical backpacks, stand taking pictures and helping Brad dispense signs. Two local teenagers have been with us for over half an hour and are passionately enlisting passersby. One car even makes a point of going around the block several times just so its passengers can keep yelling and honking.
Chris is infecting even the most serious of commuters. "You feel the kindness? It just changed your life," he yells to a man in a suit crossing the street. The man does a 360 and reads the sign: ARMS ARE FOR HUGGING!
Our cheeks are burnt; we've been in the sun for hours converting pedestrians to our cause. The protest has given us all a natural high. The public's response has surprised us and we feel like we've given a dose of kindness to the city. With memories of stunned but hysterical protesters carrying our signs, we pack up and head back to the hotel for a well-earned meal and maybe even a bit of sleep. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Call To Arms by Erik Hanson, Chris Bratseth, Val Litwin, Brad Stokes. Copyright © 2005 the authors. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.