When I participated in the Bike Rally it was pretty easy to explain to people why I was participating in the ride and what the pledges were going to. The pledges were going to the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation and went to help people living with HIV/AIDS.
In theory, the answer to “What is 500 Kindnesses trying to do.” is equally simple. Kindness is good, more kindness is even better. But beyond that there are some underlying questions about motivation both for me and for some people I’ve talked to who are considering pledging.
On my side a question I hear a lot of is what motivated me to try to make this happen. Many have assumed that this project is my response to a world that is getting more bitter and selfish by the day. People who don’t know me could easily get that idea just by reading a newspaper or turning on CNN. Stories about robbery, hit and run collisions, scam artists taking seniors for all their life savings vastly outnumber the occasional human interest story about someone’s generosity. At the same time, people who do know me know I am quick to roll my eyes at conspicuous consumption and hope for a world with more communities and fewer big box and McMansion-filled suburbs.
But in reality, the motivation behind this project couldn’t be further from being a response to a perceived problem. On the contrary, it’s meant to simply highlight what I feel is a fact: The majority of human beings are filled with kindness. The idea of helping our neighbours has been around pretty much as long as humanity has been around. All that has changed since then is that our population grew and we know a much smaller percentage of our neighbours really well. But we’re still on one level or another neighbours.
A few things come to mind for what I am trying to accomplish:
First off, people are busier than ever to the point that many of us spend our day moving from one scheduled task to another with little break in between. When we finish the first task, our mind is already on the next task scheduled. In a recent anecdote, I talked about how when I was heading to the subway to get home and start dinner, I passed a homeless man asking for money for food. It would have been very easy to keep walking. It had been a long day at work, I just finished getting a bunch of groceries and I had to get home and cook dinner for the family with only a little time after that before going to bed and starting it over again. There was no lack of compassion, but there certainly was drive to get the next task done. On other occasions I have found myself walking on by and then as I cooked dinner thinking “Damn, I was right next to the store, I could have picked up something for him.”
Similarly, it is often easy to have a good intention at one point but no opportunity to act on it. I had the idea to register as a bone marrow donor for quite some time. But this played out in a similar fashion. I’d find the idea popping into my head at times when it wasn’t really possible to act on it. I’d be on the subway, for example, and find myself thinking “Oh right, I have to find out what it takes to be a marrow donor.
For me on a personal level this project has brought the idea of kindness more to the top of my mind. I’m more likely to look at a situation with someone in need and ask myself right then “What can I do?” And ideas like becoming a marrow donor don’t only occur to me when I’m relaxing on the subway. They come back again when I’m updating the Facebook page at home and once again I’m able to act again on them. It reminds me first that I can help, and also to look for ways to help when I see someone who needs it.
I feel that keeping the idea of kindness at the front of one’s mind is an extremely good thing. Not in the negative sense of “Don’t do bad things.” or even the neutral idea of “You know, you really should do nice things for people.” I hope that this project helps to remind people that we can help when we see a need, and just as importantly, to follow through on our good intentions.
As I said above, I truly believe that people are very kind by nature, and nothing makes that more evident than the number of times I’ve heard people say “I do a whole bunch of charity work, I find ways to be kind all the time. It feels really weird to start taking credit for things I do as a part of my daily life.”
I can definitely see the point. We definitely all have an idea in our heads as what constitutes an act of kindness and what divides it from a normal every day act. I suspect we can all agree that a pledge of “I called 911 when someone collapsed on the street.” is something everyone would do and I’d definitely feel weird about taking credit for it. We all have an internal “borderline” that we have that divides everyday “being a good and responsible human being” acts from what we’d call “Acts of Kindness” And that varies greatly from person to person. And even folks who live a life of kindness may have something that they’ve either been meaning to do or that perhaps takes a bit more effort than they normally do as a rule.
So what should I pledge?
This can be a very personal question as everyone’s situation is different. But I do have a few thoughts that might help you in your search:
First off, if like me you’re someone who comes up with ideas but doesn’t always bring them to fruition, I say this is the first place to look. I’d read a number of articles over the years about people randomly buying coffee for people behind them in line. I always loved the idea but it was years before I actually tried it myself. And it was so much fun in the end I wondered why I waited. In fact, one participant in the first Coordinated Kindness enjoyed the experience so much he continued to perform acts of kindness for some time afterwards.
Totally random and unexpected acts are another fantastic way to go. Buying a coffee for a stranger, or giving hugs to everyone who wants one are small efforts that make a huge difference. Just as a unexpected insult can colour your entire day, a small unexpected kindness can really brighten one’s day.
In the past few days I’ve been receiving pledges from a school in the US. As I said before, I noticed a good many of them had the theme of talking to others and making them feel included. I’ve always been pretty shy but when I was a teenager, talking to new people was well beyond my comfort zone. What I’ve found, though, is that whether it be getting on stage for an improv set, taking a 1,000 km trip on my bike, the rewards for pushing myself just outside my comfort zone are often huge.