Read an Excerpt
Random Acts of Kindness
By Dawna Markova
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2002 Conari Press
All rights reserved.
The Power of Kindness
It is a tragedy that in 2002 the mention of tragedy has itself become commonplace. So much has been said, so many flags waved since the heart of America was opened on September 11, 200l, that it seems almost opportunistic to mention it yet again.
And yet the events of that day are the new backdrop against which all our deeds, beautiful and kind, heinous or destructive, will now be silhouetted.
In such a world kindness is not a frill; it is a spiritual necessity. Indeed, where we once might have thought of random acts of kindness as charming, delightful, or even amusing, we cannot but see them now as the moment-by-moment, day-by-day acts of love that pierce the night sky with millions of pinpoints of light, the deed-by-deed creation of a world of hopeful possibilities—indeed, of love.
For what we now know in the cells of ours souls—what we have always known, but often forget—is that every corner of our universe—and of our ourselves—is claimed by either goodness or ungoodness, by that which springs from love and gathers us all closer into the basket of life, or that which rises from unlove and makes our journey an arduous ordeal; and that for love to prevail we must practice it by teaspoonfuls, and bucketfuls and floods, in nanoseconds and minutes, week after week, for our entire lives.
The practice of kindness is the daily, friendly, homely caring form of love. It is both humble—a schoolboy bringing his teacher a bouquet of dandelions—and exalted—a fireman giving his life to save someone else's. Kindness is love with hands and hearts and minds. It is both whimsical—causing our faces to crack into a smile—and deeply touching—causing our eyes to shimmer with tears. And its miraculous nature is such that the more acts of kindness we offer, the more of them we have to give, for acts of kindness are always drawn from the endless well of love.
Kindness is twice blessed. It blesses the one who gives it with a sense of his or her own capacity to love, and the person who receives it with a sense of the beneficence of the universe. Kindness heals us, because it reminds us of our oneness, allows us to see ourselves in one another's eyes, to remember that eyes themselves are a miracle, that seeing is a gift, and that the other, no matter who he or she may be, is, in one way or another, a perfect reflection of ourselves.
* * *
Fear grows out of the things we think; it lives in our minds. Compassion grows out of the things we are, and lives in our hearts.
The power of kindness is immense. It is nothing less, really, than the power to change the world.
Daphne Rose Kingma
Living from the Heart
I don't care what anyone else says. These are awful times. There is tension in people's faces. Children wear bruises and forget to laugh. People sleep under black plastic garbage bags and carry their worlds in shop-ping carts. Everyone shrugs and calls it compassion fatigue. Anxiety and despair swirl around in our minds like discarded newspapers with headlines that tell us to remain on continual alert, indefinitely.
Our souls are leaking. We are in a recession, and we are receding. We are not moving toward anything. We are receding away. Away from what terrifies us. Away from not enough. Away from chaos. Away from poverty. Away from random acts of violence, from hurricanes and drive-by shootings and child abuse and homelessness and AIDS and drug wars. We are both clutching each other and moving away at the same time. This little book you hold is more needed than ever.
When I was quite small my immigrant Russian grandmother told me that people in this country give from the wrong place. "When you give from here," she declared, pointing to her solar plexus, "it's like keeping a ledger book. That's not giving, that's trading. I give you three so you give me three. I sweep the floor so you carry the bundles."
She pushed the wisps of white hair out of her eyes with the back of her red hands, shaking her head back and forth, tsk-ing her tongue against her teeth. "You give your soul away when you give like that. Giving is supposed to be from here," she said, pointing to the center of her chest with a feathery finger. "When you give from your heart, it's not so you get anything back. There is no owing or owed. You just give because you want to give. When you give like this, it fills you up. Your heart can never run out. The more you give from there, the fuller you will be."
Then she wipped her hands on the impeccably clean white apron and pulled me to her. "You remember this, ketzaleh. Remember to give from yoour heart. When you give like this, there are no strangers. And remember to notice when other people give to you like this. Be sure to thank themmmm."
Decades later, when I was struggling with a life-threatening disease, I traveled to a conference in Washington, D.C., in search of answers. One of the speakers was Maya Angelou, a superb poet and writer. She spoke of surviving a childhood full of terror and violence. Her handholds through the darkness were countless gifts of beauty offered to her by authors and artists who never even knew she existed. "Their work inspired me, shaped my thinking, exposed me to what could be possible," she recalled. "And I have never forgotten to say thank you for those random acts of kindness."
Without knowing it, without ever hearing my name or seeing the red knit dress I wore that day, Maya An-gelou's words left fingerprints on my heart as if it were warm wax. I drove north seeing the world through a different lens. Fate was just as unfair as it had been when I drove to the conference, but my perception had changed. I could not stop thinking of the incredible gifts that had been bestowed on me every day of my life: the music of Tchaikovsky that swirled me 'round and' round my awkward twelve-year-old body until I was a sugarplum fairy, the songs of Johnny Mathis that taught me how to love, Mark Twain's writing that taught me how to be brave, Monet's water lilies that taught me how to see, Mrs. McLean's garden that taught me about beauty in the back streets of Brooklyn. Each exit I passed on the interstate seemed to open another doorway to an embarrassment of riches I had forgotten to notice. The drive down to that conference had been fueled by my desire to get: get healed, get love, get friends, get attention. My return trip was just that: a return to my grandmother's lessons on giving from the heart, a return to remembering that I was connected to the starlit sky, the fiery sun rising, the warm brown earth. If a garden could blossom every spring, so could I! As I returned home, my soul stopped leaking.
Much of my adult life as a psychotherapist and thinking partner has been spent helping people sort through vast amounts of pain and fear, seeking ways to evolve beyond the crippling events of their histories, searching for ways to crumble the barriers behind which we all sometimes withdraw in defense and isolation. After my Maya Angelou-induced epiphany, I began asking people in workshops I was facilitating to join me in telling stories and writing acknowledgments about the random acts of kindness in their lives. For twenty minutes or so, the madness and brittleness of the world melted as men and women scrawled names, symbols, moments across the blank pages. Often, as one person would tell a story, another would nod his or her head, remembering a piece of music, a camp counselor, a man in a gas station, and add it to the page.
I asked people to consider the other side, the random acts of kindness they had performed in their lives. The room would fill with silence as if it were holding its breath. One or two people would speak shyly, as if they were giving a report to the Girl Scout leader at the Merit Badge ceremony. I had to encourage and cajole until a woman would admit that once she tied a string to all the bushes on her block, with a pack of Life Savers at the very end, a reward for anyone who was intrepid enough to follow her clue.
I don't believe this paralysis is due to compassion fatigue or a lack of caring. I believe we are trained to notice only deficits, only where we are stuck, only how we are suffering. We are trained to believe that we don't matter and that we cannot make a difference.
But we can. The reaction of the people of New York City after September 11 proved that, like yeasted bread dough, under the right circumstances, generosity and the desire to connect with one another rises in us naturally. If violence and aggression are part of our human nature, then the opposite must also be true. We just forget. We are reminded many times a day of the darkest shadows we can cast. We need also to be reminded of the brilliant light we are capable of igniting.
Giving in this way is as effective as an anti-depressant. It is a positive contagion to counterbalance the negative contagion all around us. It is salve for wild attacks of loneliness, fear, and despair. It reconfirms that each of us does belong, that we are all interconnected. It's a way of giving unabashedly from your heart without giving yourself away.
The popularity of this little book, and the worldwide movement that has grown from it, is an indicator of how much spontaneous and anonymous generosity can be a life-cherishing force. It proves that it is possible to surpass the suffering in the world by adding to the joy.
Once you begin to perform and acknowledge random acts of kindness, you can no longer believe that what you do does not matter. It is as if you are dancing along a beach, making footprints on the edge where the shore-line meets the sea. No one is applauding. No one even sees your splendid gyrations of joy. You know full well that the tide will come and wash away the marks your dance has left. Still, the dance lives on in your heart, as does the simple, clean delight of being alive. As you are about to leave, you turn to face the shoreline one last time, and you notice a small child, fitting his feet into your tracks, spinning, giggling. In that one moment, you know there is less suffering in the world. You know you do make a difference.
In a time when so many people feel powerless and unrecognized, when there are so many miserable things that happen to so many wonderful people, there are moments when you must stomp your feet in indignation and make room for the expression of your outrage. But you must also create space in your life for the expression of gratitude. What has sustained your soul? What has inspired you to hold on when all else was pulling you over a cliff? You are, we all are, the culmination of an infinite number of improbable gifts from myriad nameless sources.
Every day I walk down the mall to get a cup of cappuccino, and every day I get hit up for spare change. Every day. The panhandlers all have these wonderful stories but you never know what to believe. After a while it gets to be an irritation, and then I find myself getting upset that I'm so irritated over what is really just spare change. One day this person came up to me and said, "I just ran out of gas. My car is about six blocks away from here I have two kids in the car and I'm just trying to get back home."
I said to myself, "Here we go again," but for some reason I gave him $10. Then I went on and got my cappuccino. As I was walking back to my office, I again saw the man standing by his car, which had run out of gas right in front of my office. Seeing me, he came over and said, "Thank you, but I don't need the full ten," and handed me $2.
Now I find that being asked for money no longer bothers me and I give whatever I can every time I get the chance.
* * *
The quality of mercy is not strained; it dropeth as the gentle rain from heaven; upon the place beneath; it is twice blessed; it blesseth him that giveth and him that takes.
* * *
Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill toward all men. Agape is an overflowing love, which seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart. When you rise to love on this level, you love all men not because you like them, not because their ways appeal to you, but you love them because God loves them.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Magic Dragon
Several years ago, when I was living in Chicago, I read in the newspaper about a little boy who had leukemia. Every time he was feeling discouraged or particularly sick, a package would arrive for him containing some little toy or book to cheer him up with a note saying the present was from the Magic Dragon. No one knew who it was. Eventually the boy died and his parents thought the Magic Dragon finally would come forth and reveal him or herself. But that never happened. After hearing the story, I resolved to become a Magic Dragon whenever I could and have had many occasions.
* * *
If there is any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not deter or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.
When I was in college I attended a lecture one evening on hypnosis by a blind hypnotist. At the end of the session we did a prolonged relaxation exercise, and I walked out of the room with a completely different body than I had walked in with. It was a very powerful experience of actually feeling myself as a body for the first time in my life. As I was walking across a bridge on the way home from the lecture, a man jumped out of the bushes and tried to hit me. It was really strange—here was a random act of physical violence coupled with an incredibly powerful experience of kindness that had moved me into my body. The violence is now just a memory, but the hypnotic journey into my body forever changed how I feel.
* * *
Complete possession is proved only by giving. All you are unable to give possesses you.
My husband and I were traveling in Italy with two small babies and an au pair. We would trade sightseeing time with the au pair so we could all visit the requisite churches and museums. But on this day we took the babies along, since we only had one day to go to Assisi and all of us urgently wanted to see it. The morning was wonderful—feeling like happy pilgrims, we read each other stories of St. Francis while the babies cooed and gurgled as we drove up the winding streets.
But by the end of a very hot day traipsing uphill and downhill in the 90-degree Italian sun, the two kids were crying nonstop. One was throwing up; the other had diarrhea. We were all irritable and exhausted, and we had a three-hour trip ahead of us to get back to Florence, where we were staying. Somewhere on the plains of Perugia we stopped at a little trattoria to have dinner.
Embarrassed at our bedraggled state and our smelly, noisy children, we sheepishly tried to sneak into the dining room, hoping we could silence the children long enough to order before they threw us out. The proprietor took one look at us, muttered "You wait-a here," and went back to the kitchen. We thought perhaps we should leave right then, but before we could decide what to do, he reappeared with his wife and teenage daughter. Crossing the dining room beaming, the two women threw out their arms, cried, "Ah, bambini!" and took the children from our arms, motioning us to sit at a quiet corner table. For the duration of a long and hospitable dinner, they walked the babies back and forth in the back of the dining room, cooing, laughing, and singing them to sleep in gentle, musical, Italian. The proprietor even insisted we stay and have an extra glass of wine after the babies were asleep! Any parent who has reached the end of his or her rope with an infant will appreciate that God had indeed sent us angels that day.
* * *
My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.
—The Dalai Lama
* * *
We do not remember days, we remember moments.
>Practice Random Acts of Kindness!
* Go to your child's class and talk about random acts of kindness. Then have the kids put together a booklet of the things they have done and those that have happened to them. Have them go home and teach parents the idea and come back to school the next day with stories from their families.
* Spend half an hour in a hospital emergency room and do one random act of kindness that presents itself.
Excerpted from Random Acts of Kindness by Dawna Markova. Copyright © 2002 Conari Press. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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