This morning at the local gas station, I experienced something that I haven't in a long time, a random act of kindness that could change my life, if I let it.
I went to get gas for my lawn mower. Only needing a little, I prepaid $1.50. When I got back to the pump and started to pump it, I saw the total shot up to $2.13, and my gas can almost overflowed. Figuring it was just a mistake, I went back in to pay for the extra.
But, the cashier said that a woman put 2 extra dollars on my pump. Surprised, I asked if she was still out there so I could give it back to her, but the cashier said that she had already left. Puzzled, I got the rest of the change and told the cashier that I would "pay it forward" and give those $2 to someone else anonymously.
This simple event made me think about altruism and the concept of practicing "Random Acts of Kindness" or "Paying It Forward." This is not new. Oprah ran a big campaign about it over a decade ago, and the movie Pay It Forward was great (although I didn't enjoy the ending).
As I drove home, I realized this is a timeless concept - the idea of helping others and doing it anonymously can profoundly transform our worlds in both small and huge ways. If more people practiced this concept regularly, the transformation internally for those people and externally in the world would be astonishing.
I have a joyful friend who says that every day she tries to do a good deed and not get "found out." This could be paying for someone's toll or even something more mundane, like vacuuming the house and not telling anyone.
This friend tells an inspiring story about how this started. She was given the task of doing a good act and not taking any credit. She couldn't think of anything to do, so she was assigned (by another friend) to take a bouquet of flowers into a local nursing home, tell the receptionist to give it to a patient who never gets any visitors, and quietly walk out before the receptionist can thank her or ask any questions.
After some resistance, she did it and made a clean get away, saying the receptionist looked pleasantly puzzled. Feeling elated, she immediately took out her cell phone to call her friend and tell her the story. Luckily, she caught herself before she made the call and put the cell phone away. For two days, she was bursting with this news and could hardly contain herself from sharing it.
This is where the exercise took on an unexpected dimension. She realized that when we tell others about the "good deeds" we do, we are getting the reward right there. But, by keeping it anonymous and not telling anyone, we are cultivating a feeling inside ourselves that she described as "a ray of sunshine inside our hearts" that kept growing and growing.As a 4th grade teacher, I tell my students this story every year and challenge them to do a good deed and not get found out. The students always come up with some creative actions to take, like:
- mowing a neighbor's lawn
- cleaning up trash at a local park
- cleaning up their room or a messy sibling's room
- giving cash stealthily to a church at offering time
- being quiet when they feel like yelling at a sibling
- setting the table while no one is looking
- eating "yucky" vegetables with a smile
- baby-sitting younger siblings without complaining.
During our class discussion, a truly thoughtful student commented that my friend should have gone back to the nursing home and asked to talk to the recipient of the flowers, letting them know why the flowers were left for them. The student said that if someone really wanted to help a lonely person in a nursing home, they should visit them once a week and get to know them. This would not violate the challenge because they wouldn't have to tell anyone else about it.
Impressed with the idea, the students asked if we could try this as a class. We actually found an organization that helps match students with seniors who need companionship. Currently, we are moving forward to implement this idea, thanks to a thoughtful student taking this story in a new and powerful direction.
The challenge or experiment this week for all of us is to find a good deed to do and not to get caught or tell anyone, and see if we feel that sunshine grow inside us. Then, repeat the challenge often. If I can do this myself, those two dollars will be the best investment someone has ever made.
Quote to end story:
"When you do something noble and beautiful and nobody noticed, do not be sad. For the sun every morning is a beautiful spectacle and yet most of the audience still sleeps."
- John Lennon