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Random Acts of Kindness

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One particularly gray day, the kind of day writers have when their brains fog over and their vocabularies vanish, I had an email from the irrepressible Anne Lamott. Lamott is a longtime friend whose writing and gumptious spirit I greatly admire -- but not someone from whom I would have sought literary endorsement in a million years.

"I can't wait to blurb your book," she wrote. Clouds vanished, vocabulary returned, book was soon published with a classic Lamott remark on the back cover proclaiming Perilous Times "rich in (the author's) trademark blend of stories, history, knowledge and passion... an important contribution to (the fight for reproductive rights.)" Unsolicited kindness from a casual friend: an incalculable gift.

The kindness of strangers, though, is priceless. And might surely be a movement whose time has come.

Susan Johnson Nelson is up for starting the movement. She is also anxious to change the image of America and Americans from the ugly to the kind, as is her husband Andy. A few years ago the Nelsons traded in a comfortable life in San Francisco, where he was well established in a career in law, to join the U.S. Foreign Service. Having just completed a two-year tour in Managua, Nicaragua, he is now in an immersion program in Washington preparing for their next assignment in Hanoi. The Nelson family -- which now includes 3-year-old Bode and 1-year-old Lake -- is one you would want to represent the U.S. abroad. (The Nelson boys already enjoy love and adoration from fans on several continents.)

Susan Nelson decided recently to celebrate the Christian season of Lent not with the traditional giving up of one thing or another but with a daily act of kindness. Jesus would probably be fine with this. The inspiration actually came, she wrote in an initial social media post, from being on the receiving end of a double act of kindness herself not long ago. While negotiating the streets of downtown Washington with two screaming toddlers who had just received immunization shots, she ducked into a sandwich shop on a cookie diversion mission. A long queue of tired, hungry people let her jump to the front of the line (kindness #1), where the lady behind the counter smilingly offered not one cookie but two (double kindness #2.) Nelson's first random act of kindness: a bouquet of flowers delivered to the lady behind the sandwich shop counter.

Others follow daily. They have included homemade cupcakes for Pete at the front desk, a basket of flowers painting by Bode for a post-surgery teacher, pick-up and delivery of recycling left in hallways (double kindness: gift to building residents and anger aversion for the maintenance workers who would otherwise have to deal with it.) There was babysitting for a friend in need, banana bread baked and delivered to the local firehouse. There was Andy's kindness to Mother Earth, buying toothbrushes from all-recycled materials (hey, credit where credit is due; Andy also does extraordinary acts of fatherly kindness when Mom is wearing down) and on one dark and snowy Saturday morning both boys slept in until 9 a.m. -- duly reported in the online exchange as a great kindness on their part.

The digital saga has also prompted reports of other acts of kindness elsewhere, such as the story of a woman with cancer, having her head shaved in a beauty salon as chemo-induced hair loss began and then finding her bill had been paid by an earlier customer.

They may be small acts of kindness, but who knows how large their effects? For many of us, frustrated with what seems the impossibility of world peace, tiny moments of joy bring renewed hope. It's a start.