So much is in disarray at the moment. You need only watch 60 seconds of news or spend a few minutes on Facebook and Twitter to know that all is not right with the world. Anger, disharmony, lack of civility, bullying, and name calling abound. It’s inescapable.
Whether the disruption and frustration we encounter emanate from our external world or, if you are struggling with internal pain, how does one change the channel and find peace? How can you do your part to infuse the world—and your own life—with a bit of calm and even joy?
Let me tell you a story.
Three years ago, I was at a low point in my life. Traveling for business, I decided to grab a quick dinner in the bar of an upscale Washington D.C. hotel. I was feeling blue, not eager to socialize, but the man sitting next to me began to chat. All I could muster was listening and nodding as he told me about his life. Without prodding, he shared that he had experienced tremendous, irrevocable loss, sharing details that would bring tears to your eyes. At the time, he thought his life was over and that he would meander through the years that were left as a shadow of the person he had been before the loss. Yet, quite unexpectedly, in the aftermath of all that pain, he experienced the blossoming of a new chapter, one that was bringing him joy beyond his wildest imagination.
The arc of his story profoundly resonated with me. I told him I was grateful for his candor, that our meeting was serendipitous because he knew absolutely nothing about me and he could not possibly have known that his journey—his happy ending—was, for me, a light in the darkness.
I left the bar to take a quick call and when I returned, he was gone—vanished, never to be seen again. I learned he had paid for my dinner without leaving a card or contact so that I could thank him.
Three years later, I still think of this man and his story, and I wonder how he’s doing. I remember fondly his open-palm generosity, the candor in sharing his pain and his joy with me, a woman who was a fellow traveler and a total stranger.
To this day, I remain grateful for this random act of kindness.
What can you take away from this anecdote? Here it is, invaluable wisdom….
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. —Wendy Mass
Think about times when you, like me, have benefited from a random act of kindness and how great the gift. Remembering the kindness will incent you to pay it forward and will serve as a prod when your own goodwill is taxed by petty or large annoyances.
For example, think about the value of unexpected kindness when someone cuts you off in traffic. Is it possible that the woman with a scowl on her face and a heavy foot on the accelerator is late for a meeting and fearful of the consequences? Can you wave her forward with a smile?
Think about it when you next encounter a partisan with a contradictory political view, someone who takes no prisoners when discussing tax reform, immigration, and regulation. Can you ask yourself, What is she afraid of, and can I open my mind and heart to her fear?
Think about it when you’re in line at the grocery store and the woman in front of you announces that she forgot the bananas and leaves you tapping your toe as she goes off in search for them. Might she be frazzled because her mother just entered a nursing home? Can you say to her, “I understand. I’ve done this myself.”
Thank about it when a man, oblivious to you and the bundles you’re balancing, abruptly pushes by you on the subway car without a nod or an “excuse me.” Might he have just received a dire health diagnosis? Can you move easily away to give him more space?
Think about it when your newspaper isn’t delivered and you have to wait on hold for 10 minutes only to get an agent who doesn’t seem to grasp your inconvenience. Is it possible that this woman, who lives in a faraway land, is working two jobs to support her family? Can you say, “You must be extremely busy today. Thank you for taking the time to help me with this.”
These moments are a litmus test of your patience and compassion. They’re a measure of your selflessness. But when you do rise to the occasion, did you know that the kindness you extend has a boomerang effect, that it all bounces right back and creates a happier you? And that the kindness you push out into the world is infectious.
The Dalai Lama said, “We are visitors on this planet. We are here for ninety or one hundred years at the very most. During that period we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.”
Do you think he might have been talking about the woman in search of bananas?
Much has been said and written about random acts of kindness, but when was the last time you practiced one?
Stop. Think about it.
If you’re still thinking, it’s time to go out—today—and make someone’s life just a tad bit better. The beauty of these acts is that they can be small and they don’t cost a cent—and you don’t have to wait for someone to cut you off in traffic to find opportunity.
Here are a few suggestions, simple acts that will enrich the lives of others and boomerang much of the good feeling generated right back at you.
◆ Pay the toll for the car that follows you through a toll- booth.
◆ At Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, when you pay for your coffee, leave money to pay for the order of the person behind you—and leave the store before he or she can thank you. (We have both experienced this and the warm feeling lingers long.)
◆ Take the time to ask for the name of your server at a restaurant and write “Thank you,” using the person’s name when you leave a tip. Also, ask for the name of a grocery checkout clerk and the person who delivers your pizza—and use it.
◆ Surprise someone by letting him go ahead of you in the grocery line.
◆ Compliment a colleague for being gracious and responsive, but make sure the compliment is specific and true. Isn’t that what they teach first graders in open circle? It is something you can practice all of your life.
◆ When exiting an airplane, thank the crew for a safe flight and for all they did to make it comfortable.
◆ Volunteer at a senior center, food bank, or animal shelter.
◆ Donate to a charity—or raise funds for a charity—that advances a cause close to your heart.
◆ Offer to help an elderly woman load her packages into her car.
While you cannot possibly know the cause of behavior that upsets or annoys you, what you can know with certainty is that each person you encounter will be grateful for your generous nature, for your understanding and for your random act of kindness.
Your simple acts will radiate goodwill into the lives of others and incentivize them to replicate your good deed. When your goodness is pushed out into the world, it radiates far beyond your action. Small, generous acts on your part will contribute to a kinder, gentler world. Has it ever been more necessary than at this time in our history?
Mother Teresa understood this when she so eloquently said, “We cannot all do great things. But we can all do small things with love.”
We invite you to share with us in the comments acts of yours that have enriched the day of another.
More practical advice about generosity and the path to happiness in our book The Two Most Important Days, How to Find Your Purpose and Life a Happier, Healthier Life.