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SaraKay Smullens Headshot

Can Kindness Be Contagious?

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Several years ago I began a quiet project that offered no feedback. Nevertheless it has been privately rewarding. Then something happened, and my project did give incredibly positive feedback. I want to tell you about it, for maybe you would like to join in, and maybe the result will be worthwhile for you as well.

To explain how and why my project began at least 10 years ago: It seemed to me that day-to-day living had become increasingly insensitive and unkind, and my life has taught me well that unkindness is contagious. I decided to set out to try to do something very small to combat this -- actually, three very small things each week. This adventure often forces me out of my office on days when work, if I allow it, offers no breather.

In no way is this goal reached weekly. But I try as I live my life to do little things that are really easy. For instance, I often see a mom, dad or caretaker screaming at a frightened child. Now I know that this screaming is almost always a reenactment of the way the screamer was treated. I know better than to lecture one about the treatment of a child, for then the child is in danger of being hurt further. So I wait a few minutes, keeping the child in view, and then I walk up to the parent or caretaker and tell him or her that I could not help but notice what a beautiful child was in his/her care. Almost always, the child is seen with new eyes, and the parent smiles.

Here's another easy adventure. If I am in line and see someone far more in need of getting to the front, I say that I am not in a hurry at all, and insist that the person (with children, with a walker or who looks very tired) go before me. Or I open a door for someone, or insist that he or she take the taxi on a cold or windy day. I have never been sure if these small acts ever stayed with anyone or made life better. I just know that they have brought me joy.

But here is what happened recently: I am not a hoarder, but I am a saver. Since the pre-computer, pre-e-mail years I have saved special letters, invitations and keepsakes from people who have touched my life, many I had lost touch with, storing them in special boxes and visiting the boxes with regularity, often late at night when life is quiet and responsibilities are met. Then, this summer there was a horrid flood in the area of these special keepsakes, and much (but not all) was destroyed.

I decided to salvage all I could, locate all those who wrote that I could, and send them all home. And so I did, locating and packing (with a cover letter) late at night, with old movies as my backdrop, viewing these hours as the kind of reaching out described earlier. When I learned that someone had died, I tried to find a daughter or son to send keepsakes to. The staff at my local post office learned to expect me!

It would be impossible to describe all of the wonderful feedback I received from these hours. I heard from friends I was in touch with regularly, as well as those I had lost touch with. I have received e-mails, letters, notes, cards, phone calls. I have had lunches, dinners, tea time with those I lost touch with.

The evening before a recent trustee meeting at my Baltimore alma mater, Goucher College, I met a friend for a marvelous dinner of remembrance and sharing. We had not seen each other in over 30 years.

One friend told me that she had not kept her wedding invitation, and now she had one. Another told me that she had very few keepsakes from her deceased mother, and what was forwarded meant so much to her. Another explained that materials saved were perfect for his professional archives. I could go on and on...

Yes, I have had two sarcastic responses: "Don't you have anything better to do with your time?" And, "So you wanted to get rid of your junk and dump it on me!" But they pale in contrast to the others.

I never anticipated the responses I received. All I knew was that what was salvaged was precious to me, that I had no room to save the memorabilia any longer, and that all deserved to be returned.

My late mother believed that every meaningful experience in life was part of an enduring continuum. Often I end my notes, letters or e-mails with her words, "To be continued." My gut tells me that my mother was right: kindness passes on. It is contagious.

What do you think?

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