*It was enough that I was late for my meeting that evening. Adding to my frustration was the fact that I sat at a lonely intersection, waiting to make a left turn at an obstinate traffic light that had no intention of changing within the next couple of days.
I was considering taking drastic measures–running the light–when, to the left of me, a slight, nerdy-looking 30-something fellow came out of the corner convenience store. Goods in tow, he started down the sidewalk several steps, stopped, took a concentrated glance over at me, then went back to the light he’d just passed and pushed the WALK button. My sentence in traffic light purgatory had just been commuted.
“I’m going to talk to the Mayor about having a statue built in your honor,” I said, letting down my window. “Oh, don’t bother,” the man said, walking and smiling. ” I live on this street; I know how long that light can be.”
As the Walk/Don’t Walk sign counted down, in my rear view mirror, I watched the man, about ten feet back, cross over to the right side of the street. He was still wearing that grin, a bounce now in his initially meek gait.
And that was it. As quickly as two strangers interacted, it was over, one moved by an act of kindness, the other glowing in appreciation of the gratefulness.
It’s really happening: people are doing charitable, unselfish deeds for people they don’t know. They are letting a driver into a lane during bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic, even though, just an exit ago, that same driver wanting in was an asshole.
At retail check out stands, they are offering the customer in front of them their discount card; they’re collecting a lost, bewildered dog or cat on the street, diligently working for hours to reunite it with its owner. In a full parking lot, they are letting the person behind them have the treasured spot.
To be sure, some people do these things in hopes that at some point down the road of life–sooner than later–their actions will somehow come back to them. Others do these things with the self-serving mission of casting themselves in a favorable or superior light.
But there are also people in the world helping others simply because they believe it to be the right thing to do. They do it because somebody–parents, a friend, a Sunday School teacher or someone else in their life–showed them the importance of kindness.
They aren’t angels or saints. These people can say mean things to a loved one, seek to rationalize a lie they’ve told and leave the near empty carton in the fridge. They’re just as capable of flipping off someone on the road as the next guy. They’ve done it.
However, more often than not, these people are driven to do something good for goodness’ sake. They usually don’t spend a lot of time pondering the notion. They just do it. In any given situation, they can be moved to choose kindness.
As an entity, kindness has never quite gotten the respect it deserves. Unlike compassion, which is basically the same thing but whose wordiness has always allowed it to enjoy a certain eminence, when you think of kindness, you think of the Peace Corps or the stereotypically wise, mild-mannered nun in old Disney films.
You envision Birkenstocks and ex-hippies and beat up Volkswagens with dinged bumpers that feature tattered peace signs, FREE TIBET stickers and the infamous phrase, “Commit Random Acts of Kindness.” Next time you see one of these stickers on a vehicle–it might also be a Saab, an older model Volvo, a late model Prius or something else “sensible,” but never a Hummer–honk and wave. Chances are good the driver will wave back, only adding to the perceived peace-and-love weirdness of the advocate of kindness.
But don’t take kindness, as the cliche goes, for weakness. The mightiest force in the universe is love, a subsidiary of which is kindness. The act of kindness possesses a quiet dynamism that is anything but old-fashioned. It is a gesture that is classic, modern and timeless all at once.
A stark illustration of the sheer power of kindness lies in the fact that no one treated kindly ever forgets the act. No matter how small, to the recipient, the deed becomes a priceless remembrance. For the giver, an act of kindness is a never-ending source of good feelings and inspiration that nourishes the spirit.
Lord knows this world can use a wee more benevolence. We’ve become a society overrun by a strain of mean-spiritedness, selfishness and tyrannizing that seems increasingly immune to the antibiotic called common sense and reasoning.
We’re programmed to accept negativity in ways we don’t even realize–like the songs whose ugly lyrics play like an ignorant loop in our heads until we’re humming along. Or the TV commercial for a soft drink that features people being violently hit in the head by a can of the product. That’s supposed to be funny. It’s not, but if we see that kind of brutishness enough, to many of us it somehow becomes okay.
Then there are those mid-term election campaign TV ads that get more insidious by the day. Both sides lie like a rug, but hear them enough, and some people begin to believe them.
The bullying going on in schools; the loathsome carrying on that is pervasive on the Internet; the on-the-job backstabbing–it’s enough to drive us all crazy. Slowly, it’s doing just that.
One antidote to the madness is the practice of indiscriminate kindness. It doesn’t take much. You don’t have to trade your first class airline seat with a gentleman in coach and sit at the back of the plane so that two old friends can sit together. A flight attendant recently told me a frequent flying businessman did just that, to the shock of fellow passengers, during a flight from L.A. to Chicago.
You don’t have to jump into action and risk your own safety to pull an unconscious man from his burning car, as five strangers from all walks of life did not long ago on a street in the San Fernando Valley.
Not seeking kudos or accolades, the men didn’t even stick around long enough for TV cameras. To find them, the local evening news had to broadcast the plea of the grateful victim, who wanted to thank them in person.
No need to wear an “S” on your chest. You don’t even have to drive an old VW or remember Woodstock.
Just greeting someone you don’t know like you mean it–being the first to speak–is a small act that goes a long way. A smile and a nod. Helping someone pump gas. Feeding a parking meter that’s about to expire. Taking time for conversation with a senior citizen. No one talks to old people anymore.
Or you could simply push the WALK button for an impatient soul waiting for a stubborn light to change, sending them on their gleeful way to pass those good vibes on.
Steven Ivory is a journalist/author who has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]