Pledge #150 – Free Love

Love in the Early Morning Light

“I am involved in a sex education program our of our church and we regularly get donations of condoms for our program from the sexual health centre. I was trying to think of a way to provide free condoms to a wider audience since there is evidence that older folks are more sexually active than ever before and are at increased risk of HIV and STI’s. I am going to ask if we can have condoms available in a basket in the washrooms at our church to start.”

– Pledge #150, Ottawa, Ontario

photo: Kevin Harber

The Questions I am Asked Most About the 500 Kindnesses Project

Wait, where am I again?

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.

Outside your comfort zone

Kindness and the Golden Rule

Live by the golden rule. @orangeshow

Yesterday we received a flood of pledges. Looking quickly at the server logs, I was able to see that they all came from a school in the US. So first off, I would like to thank whomever shared this project at their school.

The thing that stood out for me about them was how many of them were inspired by the theme of acceptance. Some talked about helping a new student feel welcome and included while others talked about being respectful or nice to others so that they can make new friends. It got me thinking about how what inspires act of kindness.

In most cases it comes down to simple empathy. I remember when I was in school connecting with others was really important to me. When it was going well, I appreciated how it felt, and when it wasn’t, I definitely felt its absence. So I’m not sure what it is for others but for me it definitely comes down to the Golden Rule – doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. And even that motivates me in a couple ways.

One motivator is the simple element of surprise. I love pleasant surprises, and I’ve been lucky enough to have many. A pleasant surprise is a shock to the system. If you’re having a good day it makes you appreciate it even more. And if you’re in a rut, sometimes that positive interaction is just the thing to shake you out of it. It was this motivation that gave rise to the Coffee for Everyone Coordinated Kindness. The idea of how I would feel on the receiving end inspired and motivated me to do it.

Of course another motivator is need. While not all of us have experienced every possible need, most of us are either able to imagine what it might be like to be in need of a home, medical care, food, or companionship or have actually experienced those things. In either case this empathy usually results in our wanting things to be different. In a world filled with suffering, though, I think it’s easy to feel impotent and that there’s nothing that can be done. Or that there’s so much to be done that it isn’t possible to help everyone and so end up doing nothing.

This happened to me a few weeks back. On my way home from work I stopped off at College Subway Station which is connected to a grocery store. I intended to get off the subway there, go into the store to pick up a few things, and then get back on the train to head home. I went in, got my groceries and headed back. Walking briskly toward the subway. As I walked through one hallway I caught sight of a man with a sign that read “Need Money For Food at Home”. I continued on into the station. And then I stopped, the sign finally registering. At that point I turned around. I had money, he needed food, and there was a grocery store nearby as well. My first response was to question myself. “You can’t help everyone.” and of course the tired old “What if he uses the money for something else.” In the end I realized, that I absolutely cannot help everyone. However, I could help this man. And yes, it’s possible that he could use what I gave him for drugs or alcohol but people do need to eat and that degree of cynicism isn’t going to help anyone. And so I turned around, went to the store, picked up a gift card, and brought it to him. Thinking back now, I think that in many cases we tend to rush through our lives and either not question ourselves like that, or if we do it’s later on the subway or at home when we think “Oh, I could have helped.

So whether it’s something you appreciate in your life that you want to share with others, a surprise you want to spring on a stranger, or being able to help someone out who needs it, give your inner voice a chance to share its empathy and take the time to listen to it.