Kindness

My son Michael called this morning on his way to work. “Something just happened that I thought you’d enjoy,” he said. “I stopped at Starbucks on my way to work, and when I got to the drive-thru window, the cashier told me the guy ahead of me already paid for my coffee!”

“Wow!” I said. “You’re right. I love it!”

“So I paid for the guy behind ME.” That’s when the cashier told him that he was the fourth, not the first person to benefit from the generosity of a stranger. The first guy paid for #2, who paid for #3, who paid for Michael, who then paid for the person behind him!

Michael knows that I often talk about acts of kindness in my public speaking seminars. They fuel our sense of well-being and connection, make us happier and healthier, and help us stay resilient.

He also knows that there’s a caveat: we have to do them with no expectation of anything coming back. Otherwise, they’re not acts of kindness.

It sounds simple. It’s not. Take me, for example. Often when I’m sitting in traffic and see a driver waiting to pull onto the road, I let him or her pull in front of me. Sometimes drivers acknowledge me; other times, they don’t. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I feel good about having done something kind.

But every once in a while, the other driver pulls out, gives no sign of gratitude, and my bitchy voice immediately starts broadcasting in my head.

You’re WELCOME! she says. Did your mother and father teach you no manners? Would you rather wait another day and a half before the next kind person lets you out???

And then I catch myself.

Yikes! This isn’t an act of kindness. It’s an unspoken expectation! [I do something nice for you, then you give me a little nod or wave to signal Thanks, nice person, and then I graciously smile and nod or wave back.] So what started as a good intention is now a source of aggravation.

And the other driver? He or she has absolutely no idea that any of this is going on in my brain!

Meanwhile, now that I’m aggravated, my brain is triggering the release of stress hormones into my blood stream and I feel myself getting even bitchier.

I’ve had enough practice to know how to get back on track. I take a deep breath and evoke my compassionate self, who quickly leaps in with a story or two about the other driver. Her stories soothe my feathers and prompt me to let in the next waiting driver I see. These episodes are a powerful reminder of how easily I can slip into judging and creating a needless thorn in my own side.

The whole point of true acts of kindness is this: they boost our sense of well-being, nobody else’s. When we do something kind and get disappointed or upset with what does or doesn’t come back, we’re revealing much about ourselves and nothing about the other person. Maybe she just lost her job. Maybe he’s preoccupied with a sick kid. Maybe she simply wants to get home after a trying day. ‘Maybe’ has a thousand faces.

Kindness has just one: the intention to connect in a selfless and gratifying way. What’s amazing is that it can set off a chain reaction, even at a Starbuck’s drive-thru.

 

 

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