What is an act of kindness, anyway?

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This project has been interesting for me as I’m spending much more of my time thinking of kindness. How can I be more kind, how can I encourage others to participate by pledging kindnesses of their own? Lately, though, I have also been asking myself: what constitutes an act of kindness and what is just something that we as members of a society should be doing.

Take holding doors open for someone – not even opening doors for them and letting them walk through first, but just the simple act of waiting a couple seconds for the person behind you to catch up to you and holding the door so they can grab it. In a more dramatic way, I’d say stopping to help someone who has collapsed on the sidewalk is also in this realm. I’d say most people consider these just something that nice people (and I think most people like to think of themselves as nice) do. Some might even go so far as to say that that’s the human thing to do On the other extreme you might find people like Mother Teresa whose entire lives were about making sacrifices in order to help others. In between, though, there’s a whole lot of grey. I’d say if you asked people on the street, for example, what to do if they’re sitting on a bus and an elderly, pregnant, or disabled person gets on most would say that of course you’d get up and offer your seat to them. However, from what I’ve seen, this isn’t always the case.

What this makes me think is that everyone has an internal ‘kindness border’ that marks the difference between doing something without even thinking because they view it as the right thing to do, and “going above and beyond”. Whether done by them or by others around them, things that fall in the “above and beyond” region are considered acts of kindness.

State Farm insurance has done an interesting study on the State of American Neighbours which looks at what people are willing to do to help their neighbours and also how well they know them in the first place. It’s an interesting browse – it makes me aware that though I live in what many consider a very friendly neighbourhood, I don’t really know people here. While not really an act of kindness in and of itself, it’s definitely something I’d like to change. What surprised me about the study, though, was how few people felt they would do anything for their neighbours. In all cases it’s less than 50%. Really? Only 37% of people would be willing to walk to their neighbours’ house and put some food in the cat’s dish? Definitely something we could improve on.

Which brings me back to the point of this post. What is an act of kindness? Who defines it? Well, you do, of course. What makes a good pledge? Anything, really, as long as it pushes you to do something on the other side of your ‘kindness border’. And hopefully as we all work on this project together, all our borders may end up moving to include more acts of kindness into the realm of what we all consider part of our daily life.

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One thought on “What is an act of kindness, anyway?

  1. There was a comment on this over in the Facebook group that I thought was pretty interesting and made me think a bit more so I’m sharing it here:

    “I have been struggling with this issue, since I try to be kind to people (family, friends and strangers) every day. So it’s a foreign concept for me to “plan to be kind”…and also, my Christian upbringing makes it uncomfortable to try to get credit for it.”

    My response was:

    Interesting. The more I look at it, though, the more I see how cycling is a great metaphor for what I’m trying to accomplish. I only started cycling as an adult in 2007. I remember in May of 2008 I was really proud of myself as I went out and rode 15 kilometres. After I started commuting, I went up to 40 km/day and my idea of what a long ride was would have been somewhere over 50 km. Then when I trained for the trip to Montreal in 2010, I got to the point where 100 km was a challenge but definitely not what I’d call a long ride. And by the same token, I went 600 km last year, 1000 km this year and next year’s ride will be 1500. Today 600 km doesn’t sound daunting at all. So what I hope to accomplish is to have people do the same with acts of kindness. To “exercise those muscles” and get to the point where what they think is a huge deal today is just daily island life in a few years.

    As for the taking credit, I see the point there. That’s part of why I made it possible to make anonymous pledges. The point really is to keep the idea of kindness at the top of one’s mind at all times. And really, I don’t know about you, but I (and I imagine many others) have a few ideas of things they *should* do but haven’t managed to get around to for whatever reason. (For example, volunteering to harvest fruit with Not Far From The Tree).

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