04/15/2013 11:41 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2013

Organized Acts of Kindness

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I chose to celebrate my fifth post-cancer birthday by inviting people to do acts of kindness, because during a long year of five surgeries in 2007 and the subsequent recovery process, the small and large kindnesses I received from people helped me to survive, revive, and thrive.

Again and again I experienced the healing powers of a kind word or an empathic smile, as well as the more specific efforts of family and friends, who accompanied me to countless medical appointments and surgeries, spooned me soup and song, painted my apartment to give me a new sense of life, wrote me words of encouragement, inspiration, hope; sent me flowers and gifts and cards that I hung on my bedroom wall for a full two years.

I knew I could never really pay back all those kindnesses, instead I have tried to pay them forward. This year I invited people to join me as I renewed my own commitment to injecting little and big bits of kindness into a world that badly needs all kinds of healing.

I sent out an email asking friends to share a story about acts of kindness, their own or someone else's. My vision was to harness the power of social networking to make these acts visible and thus inspirational, multiplying their magic. I came to see, however, that kindness might be kindled, but not coerced. A few people spoke to me privately -- and kindly -- to express their discomfort either with proclaiming their own acts, or of displaying the recipients of their gifts.

Even so, I was able to gather numerous accounts of different expressions of kindness. There were everyday acts: picking up litter, cutting up fruit for family breakfasts each morning, feeding squirrels that couldn't access their acorns after a winter blizzard, leaving coins in the laundry mat for the next person to discover, offering bags to someone who forgot theirs at the supermarket (a kindness to the planet a well as to the person), withholding a critique, or finding a gentle way to deliver it.

Also included were stories of adopting a dog with birth defects, finding homes for abandoned animals, volunteering in public school classrooms, taking time to for write long letters to friends (a lost art), crocheting scarves and hats to donate to a shelter, making handmade cards, preparing meals for the homeless, calling people who lived alone just to say "hi," contributing funds for a family who lost everything in a fire, speaking out about racist incidents, and writing to Congress asking for justice for undocumented youth.

A number of people told me how these acts of kindness to others were really gifts to themselves. They slowed down enough to see the world in new ways, and to make connections they might not otherwise have made.

Sian, who lives in England, tried different ways of getting to know a homeless woman whom she passed by every day: making eye contact, offering a word, a gesture, a smile, chocolate, cookies, sunflower seeds. The woman only accepted the sunflower seeds, but offered conversation in return, and eventually her name: Maureen. Sian, who is in the field of social work, reflected on her own attempts to connect across their differences, and wrote an article for a U.K. magazine that is sold by homeless people.

Eric, who lives in Guatemala, told of offering money to women vending hand-woven goods to tourists in a restaurant, not with pity or condescension, but "for taking the trouble to show us such beautiful things." This framing helped the other "gringos," who were annoyed at being interrupted in their meal, to see the beauty this woman was offering to the world.

Mary Anne, who lives in Boston, told me of "driving with kindness," letting cars cut into her lane, and watching for pedestrians to cross the street. She came to see that this transformed the way she drove.

In addition to friends and family, I invited the kids who attend a play-based instructional after-school program that I oversee in downtown Los Angeles to explore the meanings of kindness.The kids made "kindness letters," coloring pictures, writing about friendship and love and carefully elaborating their letters with stamps and stickers.

Ten-year-old Ceci, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Guatemala and who loves to play the tambourine, wrote one to her mother, thanking her for the sacrifices she makes by working for 14-hour days cleaning other people's houses. She wrote another to "all the students in the school," animating them to keep "working hard" so they could "get ahead" in life. Then she penned the following letter for local street vendors, which we copied and she delivered the next day:

Dear street vendors. How have you been? I know that you work hard every day in order to feed your kids and pay the rent. Don't give up. We will never be defeated because with all of us we are a big community.

As they sat writing their letters, Betti and Ada, two first graders who sometimes claim to be "best friends," found themselves in a conflict. Betti, a vivacious young girl with dimples and an infectious smile, felt that Ada had been laughing at her, and excluding her from play. As a student mentor in the program helped them negotiate their differences, we all came to see that kindness wasn't just about being "nice." We could be angry -- but still kind. Kindness could be about talking, and listening -- with not just our ears, but our hearts.

When I began this project, I thought I understood what kindness was, and its value in the world. But by listening to the kids, and to my friends, I learned much more.

I came to see that some kindnesses are easy. But that doesn't diminish their value. When we take the time to do kind things, our acts can have a powerful effect, not just on the world, but on ourselves.

Other kinds of kindness ask us to step out of our comfort zones. Crossing lines that usually divide us can be scary; it is especially challenging to find considerate and humanizing ways to do so. Being kind when we are angry -- and hearing others' anger -- requires inner strength. Offering kindnesses to others, especially when we don't think they need or "deserve" them, forces us to face our own prejudices, assumptions and fears. But when we overcome our resistances, we may be surprised at what we learn about others, and ourselves.

Sharing these experiences with me was a kindness in itself, and this essay is one way I intend to pay that kindness forward. Perhaps you, my reader, will be inspired to try some courageous acts of kindness yourself, and see what effect they have on the world, and on you?

It's my hope that all these kindnesses will multiply, and then return to the world a hundred fold.