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The Power of Random Acts of Kindness
We at Conari Press published Random Acts of Kindness to inspire and spread the word about the power of kindness. It did that and more: we have been flooded with letters from readers, telling us of the kindness they have experienced in their lives—simple acts that often left profound change in their wake. Each story was precious and powerful, from the simplest gesture to the most unimaginable miracle. More Random Acts of Kindness grew out of the realization that we could not possibly keep these stories to ourselves. Sifting through the piles of letters trying to pick which stories to publish was an almost impossibly difficult task. In the end we simply went on instinct, selecting those that moved us the most and offered the widest reflections on kindness.
Throughout the sorting process we noticed a few things about the inner workings of kindness as stories converged and themes repeated themselves over and over again. One of the obvious (and at first surprising) realizations was that most of the stories submitted, the ones people were almost desperate to tell, were invariably about kindnesses they had received. In each there was a giver and a receiver, but the need to tell the story was almost always from the person who had been the beneficiary.
At first we thought it was simply modesty. At a Random Acts of Kindness party we held, after many people had shared an act of kindness they had received, we pointed out that all the stories were from the point of view of the recipient and asked people to speak as well of the things they had done. The audienee politely listened and then returned to telling the most fascinating and powerful stories of kindnesses done to and for them.
Gradually it became clear that the reason we were flooded with stories from recipients was really quite simple: the quality of the experience was dramatically different. The person on the receiving end experienced what was often a life-altering moment, whereas the giver experienced a less dramatic, quiet affirmation of simply having "done the right thing."
The second thing that emerged was that although the stories were as varied as the people telling them, at the foundation of each story was a very simple and compassionate connection between strangers who, for a moment, experienced one another not as strangers, but as family. In a sense, kindness truly is the acting out of our very deep and real connection to everyone and everything around us. It is the realization that all of us are in fact—not just in theory or theology—in this together.
The third observation is about the extraordinary impact of even the smallest act of kindness. Many of the experiences happened many years ago but made such an impression that they were every bit as powerful in the retelling. Just a simple story about a single act that occurred twenty years before could and frequently did call forth a deep well of emotion.
Most surprising was the realization of how easily we seem to misplace this jewel. Kindness is something we are accustomed to thinking of as "nice" or "sweet" and we tend to set it apart from those things we perceive of as more "important"—attributes like intelligence, strength, and power. It is so easy to see kindness as a wonderful quality in an individual but of limited importance in the complex life of work, achievement, politics, and society.
That framework arises almost naturally from the structure of our daily lives. We struggle with the immediate responsibilities of paying bills, raising children, and searching for answers to the personal, social, and global problems we face every day. And although kindness is a positive and valued attribute to carry with us in these endeavors, it doesn't always seem to play a role in the end results. It can look like an "extra something" that good people weave into their daily lives—but not a necessity.
From the vantage point of having read so many people's stories, however, we've come to see that this attitude misses the point entirely. Kindness is not about paying bills and getting by; its sphere of influence is vastly broader and ultimately more important. Kindness is about being who we truly are. Seen from this perspective, kindness emerges as one of the most powerful tools at our disposal as we go through our lives. Its power not only is easily accessible to anyone who cares to use it, but it also can never be diminished; rather it expands with every action. It has the ability to utterly transform another person's life through the simplest of actions. It has the capacity to return us to the very core of our humanity.
Even with this limitless power in our grasp, the texture and context of our lives often leave us confused about how to employ it. The desire is there—to connect, to lend a helping hand, to extend ourselves out into the world—but the avenues for doing so seem obscure and confused. We are often victims of our own fears and rationalizations—that the world is too dangerous a place to connect with, that one person cannot make a difference. Too many of us suffer from social shrinkage, reducing the boundaries within which we are willing to act from our hearts to smaller and smaller circles of friends and family.
When a mass tragedy occurs, people respond; floods in the Midwest, hurricanes in Florida, earthquakes in California, famine in Africa—all are met with an outpouring of kindness and generosity. Similarly, in most of the stories we received, the response had been triggered through the catalyst of someone else's unavoidable need. And while this is good, think of the untapped potential that would be unleashed if we could find a way to weave the kindness in our hearts into every moment of our lives.
That is the challenge: to learn how to practice random acts of kindness as a welcome and natural part of our daily lives. We see this book as a furthering of that learning.
—The Editors of Conari Press
A number of years back, my six-year-old son and I had gone shopping at one of those giant discount toy stores with toys piled to the ceiling. We had just come around the corner of an aisle when I saw a young, long-haired bearded man in a wheelchair. He must have been in some terrible accident because both his legs were missing and his face was badly scarred. Just then my six-year-old saw him too and said in a loud voice, "Look at that man, Momma!"
I did the normal mother thing and tried to shush my son, telling him it was not polite to point; but my son gave a hard tug, broke free from my hand, and went running down the aisle to the man in the wheelchair. He stood right in front of him and said in a loud voice, "What a cool dude earring, man! Where did you get such a neat earring?"
The young man broke into a grin that lit up his face. He was so taken aback by the compliment that he just glowed with happiness, and the two of them stood there talking awhile about his earring and other "cool stuff." It made a lifelong impression on me.
For I had seen only a horribly scarred man in a wheelchair, but my six-year-old saw a man with a cool dude earring.
As a child I understood how to give; I have forgotten this grace since I became civilized.
Years ago I had to have a new water heater installed. A very surly man showed up to do the installation, giving short, curt answers to my every question. I thought he was simply a sour old man and left him to his work.
When he finished, he said he had to wait for another worker to arrive to help him carry the old tank out of my basement. I invited him to sit in my kitchen and offered him some coffee. He said "Nope" and just sat down at my table with legs and arms crossed. I rolled my eyes and went about my work, knowing he'd be gone soon.
After a few moments he asked what was flashing on my dining room table. I retrieved a small clock shaped like a computer workstation and gave it to him to look at. I explained how it used solar power to alternately flash the time and the name of my company. He said "Hmmph" and set it on the kitchen table, but I noticed he continued to look at it from time to time.
Finally his assistant came and they carried the tank from the basement. He returned to my back door to get my signature, and I asked him to wait. I went in and got the clock and said, "Here, take this with you." He said, "Are you serious?" I said yes and smiled as he nodded and started to leave. He hesitated, turned back to me, and said, "Ya know, my wife died six weeks ago, and this is the first nice thing anyone's done for me." He looked at me one last moment, the corners of his mouth barely turning up, and walked away.
I walked back into my kitchen and broke down crying.
To give without any reward, or any notice, has a special quality of its own.
—Anne Morrow Lindbergh
I am from a family of staunch Catholics, so my divorce was viewed as a disgrace and a scandal. My mother and I were estranged for over a year because of it. We started our reconciliation with tentative phone calls, letters, and my promise to come home for Christmas. Then she died unexpectedly on the first day of December. The plane tickets I had planned to use for a holiday reunion were instead used for her funeral. The black sheep returned to the fold.
For reasons of my own, I did not want to view the body in the casket. Many family members and friends questioned that decision, but I sat resolutely in the reception parlor as the others went inside for prayers. In the middle of the throng, my most "perfect and pious" aunt—the mother of the priest—quietly announced, "I think I'll stay here too." She sat silently beside me and held my hand for the entire evening. The act was simple, the meaning immense. It happened thirteen years ago and I still cry when I remember how touched I was by her kindness.
In nothing do men more nearly approach the Gods than by doing good to their fellow man.
Each person has inside a basic decency and goodness. If he listens to it and acts on it, he is giving a great deal of what it is the world needs most. It is not complicated but it takes courage. It takes courage for a person to listen to his own goodness and act on it.
A friend who was working in the Dominican Republic with Habitat for Humanity had befriended a small boy named Etin. He noticed that when Etin wore a shirt at all it was always the same dirty, tattered one. A box of used clothes had been left at the camp, and my friend found two shirts in it that were in reasonably good shape and about Etin's size, so he gave them to the grateful boy. A few days later he saw another boy wearing one of the shirts. When he next met up with Etin he explained that the shirts were meant for him. Etin just looked at him and said, "But you gave me two!"
What really matters is what you do with what you have.
I had just moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and was worried about what seemed to be the increasing frequency of carjackings. Whenever I drove I was constantly aware of my surroundings and was always taking steps to avoid becoming a "statistic." One morning I was in a particularly bad area, sitting at an intersection waiting for the light to change. As I looked across the street, I saw several men grouped around a stopped car. One man was moving in and out of the driver's side with such intensity and effort that he looked as though he was using all his strength.
My heart jumped into my throat as I thought I was witnessing someone being carjacked. But before my brain could come up with any action to take, I realized that the man's car had stalled, and with the help of the other men he was trying to push it to the side of the street. As I watched, they pushed it to safety and after a wave and a nod they all walked off in different directions. Total strangers helping someone out. I felt like crying—whether at the unexpected sweetness of the scene or at my unwarranted suspicion and fright—I do not know.
Caring is a reflex Someone slips, your arm goes out. A car is in the ditch, you join the others and push ... You live, you help.
There is a beautiful old spruce tree that grows in a field along side the street to my home. For years it has been a comforting and serene part of my daily commute. Over the past few years I had watched a thick vine grow around the tree and climb its trunk. As time went by the vine grew more and more vigorously, and the poor old tree was clearly suffering. I don't know why I simply observed and did nothing.
One Saturday morning as I was driving my children into town for assorted sporting events, I noticed a elderly couple had driven into the field and were rummaging around in their car. Returning home many hours later I saw the couple sweating away in the hot sun, doing mortal battle with the massive vine. I quickly changed into my yard clothes, mixed up a pitcher of lemonade, threw an assortment of fruit and snacks into a cooler, and headed over to the field.
When I got there I was astounded by what I saw: the couple had been hacking away for half the day already, and a huge pile of cut vines with stems as thick as a garden hose lay next to the tree. But there was much more to be done. I greeted the couple with my offerings and after a brief, friendly picnic we all set to the task at hand.
By the end of the day we had attracted three more volunteers, and by sunset you could almost hear the sigh of relief from that old spruce. Our efforts were not in vain; now whenever I drive past my heart fills with joy over the robust appearance of that beautiful tree.
My satisfaction comes from my commitment to advancing a better world.
Driving the fourteen miles home to our small Iowa town from a last-minute Christmas shopping trip, my father was carefully navigating his way through the heavy falling snow. About a half-mile from our farmhouse—the only one for miles—we spotted a car in the ditch and stopped to investigate. It was empty. The blowing snow all but obscured the lane up to our house, but I could see that the lights were on and we never left the lights on.
As we stumbled in our front door we were greeted by the refugees from the abandoned car, a stranded family of four. They began apologizing for being in our house, but Mom just said, "Shush, you did what you had to do," as she began preparing hot drinks and food for us all.
It seemed so natural to expect them to stay the night, so my brother and I eagerly began getting acquainted with our new friends. Farm life was lonely for the two of us, age eight and ten, and the company of other boys was always welcome. That night the full force of the storm hit and by morning it was obvious that our guests would not be able to continue their journey to Minnesota for Christmas. There was two feet of snow everywhere and probably no snowplow for days. To four small boys it was paradise.
Mom just took us aside and we began to rewrap and address presents for our newly-found extended family. Unbeknownst to us, the father had gone back to their car to collect their Minnesota presents and was doing the same. It was one of the best Christmases I can remember.
After the verb "to love," the verb, "to help" is the most beautiful verb in the world.
—Bertha Von Suttner
I arrived at the airport in Pullman, Washington, excited about my approaching interview for admission to the University of Washington's veterinary school. I went directly to the rental-car agency to pick up my car, only to find, to my disbelief and horror, that my credit card had been refused and I had no other means of payment.
I ran to the pay phone and called my roommate back in California. I was trying to explain what had happened in between hysterical sobs, when a man walked up to me, tapped me on the shoulder, handed me a hundred-dollar bill, and walked away. Thanks to the generous compassion of a total stranger I made the interview on time and was accepted into the veterinary school.
Only a life lived for others is worth living.
Excerpted from More Random Acts of Kindness by Editors of Conari Press. Copyright © 1994 The Editors of Conari Press. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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