Random Acts of Kindness

Something I’ve thought about a lot lately is the lack of community that our current society has. Whatever happened to the days when people did things for their neighbors, not for financial gain or recognition, but simply because it needed to be done? Are these societal gestures a relic of the past, or are they still present, just seldom seen? Being an optimist I’d like to think that they happen as often as in past decades; the realist in me thinks that if this were so, surely we’d hear about it more frequently, due to social media and digital networking.

Shows like NBC’s “What would you do,” capitalize on a society drawn to negativity. Hidden cameras capture bystanders’ reactions to things like a person leaving a baby in a parked car, or someone stealing cash from someone’s purse in the viewing public, or some other test of ethics. These shows are popular, not because there is always a happy ending where someone steps up and does the right thing, but because we all like to shake our heads at how disgraceful it is that the vast majority of people do nothing. Worse yet, they often avert their eyes and pretend they see nothing, as if they know they should do something, but don’t want to be inconvenienced by getting involved.

I think this is true of the majority of Americans. We have become a nation of consumers and hoarders, which tends to make us want to keep what we have and protect it at all costs. This even includes what one might argue is our most precious commodity: time. I even have a friend who lives by the philosophy “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” Does that also hold true of our time? He who dies with the most “unused” time, wins?

There are occasions when I hear about random acts of kindness but it’s typically around a holiday; for example the police officer in New York City buying boots for a homeless gentleman, or a complete stranger paying a layaway fee at a local store. The other occasion when I hear about this kind of generosity is after a major catastrophe. I ask you, why does it have to take the worst to bring out the best in people?

True freedom and happiness lie not in what we have and what we do for ourselves. Instead they emerge in the non-material connection we have to life, and in what good we do for other people. Nearly everyone has done something for someone else and not expected recognition or compensation for it, right? Don’t those random acts of kindness make you feel really good about yourself after you do them? I’d even say it makes you feel better than if you had bought yourself a new gadget. The buying high that comes along with having a new toy simply cannot rival the experience of connection to another human being’s happiness.

I have a friend who gets her random act of kindness fulfilled without spending any extra time, and only a little of her money. She frequents a coffee shop a couple of times a week. One day while sitting at the drive thru she looked in her rearview mirror and saw that the person behind her was desperately searching for change to pay for their order; on impulse, she decided to pay for their order as well as her own. She’s since made this a regular occurrence. She spends an extra $3 and leaves feeling good about herself.

One great thing about doing random acts of kindness: every once and a while the universe reminds you what it’s all about, and you get to see the product of your little contribution to making your community a better place. My friend who buys the coffee for a stranger was recently in line at this same coffee shop, when she reached the counter the clerk told her that the person in front of her had already paid for her. She didn’t realize it when she started purchasing others’ orders, but she had started a trend, thus contributing to the sense of community and willingness to do acts of kindness for others in that area.

Imagine the good we’d all be doing in our communities and for ourselves if we simply committed to one weekly random act of kindness.