When was the last time someone paid you a compliment? I don’t mean a friend or family member, whom you’d expect to support you. I mean someone with no interest in your well-being. Wasn’t it great? Didn’t it make you feel more alive? Well, at least that’s how I feel when people are kind to me for no reason.
And here’s what’s interesting about kindness: it has a way of getting passed along. It’s easy to see how too if you think about your own life. Someone offers, unasked, to help you with a project at work. Your load lightens and you feel better. The rest of your day goes better, your mood is positive, and you’re happy to let someone else ahead of you at the cash machine. Or you pay an unexpected compliment to the server who brings your meal at a restaurant. Then that server (or the person you’ve let ahead of you in line) is in a better mood and in turn spreads that kindness. It’s not just a ‘fairyland dream.’ It works.
There’s another thing about kindness too. It reminds us of what we are capable of achieving as humans. Let’s face it: the world is full of misery in so many forms. Every day the news brings us stories of the worst that people can do to one another. It’s enough to make anyone give up on the human species. But if one person goes out of her or his way to give you good directions when you’re lost, things don’t seem so bad.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. When I began my graduate studies many years ago, I went to class at night. One night – a cold wintry night on the US East Coast – I was on my way home from class when my car broke down. I pulled over and found myself on a street of very exclusive upmarket shops, most of which were closed for the day. The nearest light I saw was in the window of a very expensive-looking fur shop – the sort of shop I could never afford. I went in and the couple who ran the shop started to tell me that they were closed. When I told them of my predicament though, they immediately allowed me in and let me use their telephone (yes, those were the days before everyone had mobile/cell ‘phones). I called for a tow and while I waited, my hosts gave me a cup of hot chocolate. Not only did that simple act of kindness keep me safe and warm, it also made everything just a little better – even the fact that I had a major car repair expense waiting for me. Oh, and here’s the interesting part. The couple who helped me that night were Russians. And this was before the breakup of the Soviet Union. There was no reason for these people to be kind to a stranger, and an American at that. And there was no reason for me to trust them. And yet… I hope they had a good life.
The other thing about even small acts of kindness is that they can be really productive. Don’t believe me? Here’s another story (I’m a writer. I tell stories. It’s what I do.). Winters on the US East Coast can bring absolutely foul weather, and sometimes there are sudden big snowfalls. That happened one weekend when I was still living there. There was so much snow in fact that all roads – everywhere – were closed. So were all of the airports. We ended up getting about 1m (just over 3ft) of snow that blew into drifts about twice that high. Needless to say, the parking area near the building where I lived was impassable. And our usual snow removal company couldn’t send a plow because of the ban on driving. And yet, after three days of not being able to go anywhere, people needed to buy basic supplies. So on the day the ban was lifted, we decided to help one another. One by one, we shoveled each car free of the snowdrifts, not really caring much whose car it was. It was hard work, but in a relatively short few hours, we got the parking area clear enough that people could move their cars. If you’ve ever lived in an apartment building, you know that you often don’t get to know your fellow residents very well. Certainly none of us knew each other well. We weren’t being kind because we were friends or family. We did it because it needed to be done and it was best for all of us if everyone was helpful. And it worked.
This past week, we’ve been brutally reminded of how awful people can be. The tragedies in Canada have broken our hearts, and we stand together in grief and sorrow with Canada at this time. There are other, equally grim reminders of what humans can sink to doing.
Kindness will not bring those people back. Kindness won’t instantly stop war, poverty, social injustice or any of the other ills that beset us. But here’s the thing. Kindness can remind us that we are better than that. Kindness can focus us and allow us to work together to solve some of the problems we face. Kindness can help us channel our grief, our fears and our uncertainty into something productive.
And it doesn’t take much to be kind. It doesn’t cost a penny to smile and wave someone ahead of you at the grocery store. It costs nothing at all to pay a genuine compliment to someone who waits on you, teaches your child or works with you. And you don’t have to ‘click here’ or slide your credit card to help someone who drops a bag or doesn’t speak much of your language but needs directions. But the payoffs are enormous. And there’s no crime or mystery about that.
So as we all face the awful things that have happened lately, I invite you to do one kind thing – just one – to remember those who lost their lives. Maybe that one kind thing will lead to another. And another. And maybe at some point, somehow, all of that kindness building on kindness might mean that fewer people have to deal with that kind of tragedy.
Pass it on!
ps. Thanks to Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan for the powerful and inspiring post that made me think of this. I love you too, Bill.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance.