Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
- Leo Buscaglia

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Wrong Place, Wrong Card

     Today was my final day of “pre-season training” with 2012 just hours away.  And for now the 3rd day in a row, I made some changes to my original plan for the day as that plan bumped into “real life.”  And also for the 3rd day in a row, those changes revealed new lessons for me.  It will be interesting to see how often changes like this take place.
     While I want to be careful not to have most of my acts require money, I had decided that today I would buy some $5 gift cards to Starbucks and give out a couple of them to strangers.  I stopped at our local Starbucks on Main Street and bought ten gift cards, figuring they would always come in useful somewhere along the line.  Cards in hand, I left the store and began to stroll down Main Street trying to decide how to choose an appropriate recipient.  As I said a pleasant “good afternoon” to those I passed, it occurred to me that I am too often guilty of quickly judging people based on how they look.  Even more telling, I too often form a negative opinion of people who don’t look like me or my type of friends. 
     To help me combat this tendency, I decided that I should give a gift card to someone who I normally would think negatively of and typically avoid.  It wasn’t long before I saw an older man who was poorly dressed, unshaven, smoking (I really dislike smoking), and riding a handicap electric cart.  He wasn’t smiling and didn’t look pleasant.  Just what I was looking for.  I stopped him and asked him if he’d like a gift card to Starbucks.  His response surprised me— “No, I don’t ever go to Starbucks.”  Well that didn’t go how I expected!  But I was still determined to follow through with my plan, so I continued to walk further up the street.
     After 10-15 minutes of strolling, unable to find someone who looked sufficiently unlike me, I realized that I was in the wrong place, using the wrong card.  Main Street in Moorestown, NJ is mostly filled with people just like me, most of whom go to Starbucks regularly.  If I wanted to brighten the day of a different type of person, I should go to the shopping center at the “other end” of town, buy some cards from Dunkin’ Donuts, and stop in at the Laundromat.  And so that’s exactly what I did.
     I bought some $5 gift cards at the Dunkin’ Donuts that anchors one end of the shopping center and then walked to the other end where the Laundromat is.  Sure enough, it was filled with people who were not my typical friends.  I picked out one older man who was walking out pulling a whole cart of clothes and asked him if he’d like a gift card to Dunkin’ Donuts.  His face lit up as he responded, “Sure, I love Dunkin’ Donuts!  I go there just about every day.  What’s this for?”  I simply told him I wanted him to have a nice day, after which he smiled, shook my hand, and wished me a Happy New Year.  Mission accomplished.
     As I got back in my car and reflected on what I had learned, I decided that I would use the Starbucks gift cards mostly as “thank yous” while I would use the Dunkin’ Donuts ones mostly as simple ways to brighten the day of a stranger.  Since I still needed to stop and get gas on my way home, I figured I could use one of the Starbucks cards to say “thank you” to the gas station attendant who is always so friendly at the place where I prefer to fill up (New Jersey is one of the few states where all gas stations must be full service only).  After my tank was full, I gave him my credit card for the gas, and the gift card with my thanks.  He seemed appreciative, though it was such a quick exchange that I honestly couldn’t gauge his reaction.  It didn’t really matter anyway as my goal was about the gesture, not the reaction.
     Well, tomorrow is January 1st and marks the “official” start of my kindness project.  The past 3 days have been perfect preparation—giving me a chance to practice both doing intentional acts of kindness, as well as writing about my observations and reflections.  I can’t wait to discover what lies ahead!    

Friday, December 30, 2011

Preseason Training Continued . . .

     Today was the 2nd day of my "preseason training" as I prepare to officially launch my project on January 1st.  Of course, in reality, there's actually nothing different about these few "practice" days than the "real thing" but it still feels helpful to experiment a little with thinking of, noticing, and acting on opportunities for kindness, as well as writing about them.  And for the 2nd day in a row, my original plan ended up getting altered.
     I decided to stretch my comfort zone a bit today by going to a local nursing home and spending some time with a senior citizen who might be lonely.  This is a stretch for me because I haven't typically been the most patient or compassionate when it comes to seniors, and I've typically regarded nursing homes as among the most depressing places one can be.  I figured this would be a good challenge for me to stay focused on kindness and making a human connection.
     As I approached the nursing home, I wondered what I was doing and briefly thought about "chickening out" and thinking of something else to do; but I reminded myself that this was part of the whole point of my project - to expand my capacity for kindness by stretching myself. 
     I really wasn't sure what to expect in terms of what I would say at the front desk and how they would react.  Walking into a brightly lit lobby filled with holiday decorations, I approached two women who seemed to be something like receptionists.  I asked them if they had any residents who might be lonely and without family who might benefit from simply having someone to talk with.  They were predictably surprised by my question, but then thought about one woman named Pat.  They tried reaching her, but unfortunately, they concluded that she must have been out of the building.  When I asked if there were any other residents they'd suggest I visit, they couldn't think of any as most seemed to have relatives visiting for the holiday weekend.  While they appreciated my gesture, I still left the building not having completed what I set out to do.
     Not to be deterred, I figured I could try another nursing home in town (we actually have several!).  I also realized that I would have to pass Main Street to get there and figured that I could stop at the Moorestown Flower Shoppe and pick up some flowers to deliver to someone.  When I went in and explained what I was looking for, the woman at the counter seeemed touched and threw in a few extra yellow roses in the arrangement she created.  Flowers in hand, I headed to the next nursing home.

     To be honest, as I walked inside, I really wasn't sure whether it would be better to simply ask the receptionist to anonymously deliver flowers to the person of her choice, or whether it would be better for me to deliver them myself and spend some time with the recipient. As it turned out, circumstances made the decision for me.
     When I explained to the receptionist that I wanted the flowers to go to someone who was lonely and for whom it might brighten the day, she got on the phone and called the nursing supervisor for input.  Together they identified a woman named Mary B. and the receptionist directed me down several hallways to where the supervisor would be waiting.  When I got there, the supervisor pointed me toward a room full of senior citizens watching TV and noted that Mary was the little woman in the pink sweater. 
     As you might imagine, Mary was quite surprised when I presented her with the buoquet and she, at first, couldn't quite grasp who I was or why I was there for her.  I just explained that I thought she'd enjoy them and then spent 5 or 10 minutes asking her a little about herself and engaging her in conversation.  As I left, the nursing supervisor assured me that she would put the flowers by Mary's bed so that she could enjoy them for several days and that she was sure it meant a lot because Mary had "no one."
     As I drove home and thought about what had happened, here's what came to mind first:
  1. I noticed that it's already (and it's only my 2nd day!) getting easier to dive right in and do something nice regardless of the fact that it feels a little strange or out of my comfort zone.  I suspect that once you do that a few times and realize that nothing terrible happened, you build confidence to just "go for it."
  2. I felt good that I had made the world just a little better place today.  While some doubting voices in my head wanted to question or diminish what had happened by wondering if I could do it every day, or if my motives were in any way self-serving, or any of a host of other fears, the bottom line was that nothing could be wrong with contributing some extra kindness in our world, no matter how large or small.
     I'm excited to see what tomorrow will bring!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Getting a Head Start

     I figured it would be a good idea to “practice” thinking of, and doing, intentional acts of kindness for a few days prior to my project launch – sort of like getting a running head start.  For today’s act, I decided to stop at the hot pretzel store on Main Street in my hometown of Moorestown, NJ, and to deliver them to the post office workers as a small thank you for always being so helpful.  I’d been in the post office more in than past 6 months than ever in my life, mostly shipping copies of my last book, Fundamentally Different, all over the country; and the workers were always surprisingly cheerful and helpful.
     I was a little nervous as I thought about exactly how I was going to deliver them, what I would say, and how I would feel if other customers were there waiting in line.  As it turned out, I had a slight change in plans.
     After I bought the bag of hot pretzels, fresh out of the oven, I got back in my car and headed up the block to turn around and go toward the post office.  As I did so, I passed a bus stop where I noticed two elderly men sitting on a cold bench waiting for the bus.  It occurred to me that it might be nice to offer them the pretzels instead.  So I pulled into a bank parking lot a block or two ahead, and walked back to the bus stop.  I asked them if they’d enjoy some hot pretzels and the younger of the two men (they might have been a father and son) broke into a smile and gladly accepted them.  He also told me about his daughter who goes to Temple University and sometimes works at the pretzel shop during her breaks, after which I wished them well and headed back to my car.
     It was a simple gesture, and it felt good to do it; but as I thought about it afterward, I already realized a couple of things that I could do differently the next time.  The first thing I noticed is that the man to whom I had handed the pretzels wanted to tell me, a complete stranger, about his daughter who is attending Temple.  He must have been very proud of her as he was so quick to share this information.  It would have been a great opportunity for me to listen with earnest and to ask him a few questions about her.  I suspect he would have loved to talk about her.  Instead, I was a little too focused on the act of giving him the pretzels vs. participating in the greater human connection that was available.  I’ll try to be better about this in the future.
     The second thing I realized was that there was a simple “pay it forward” opportunity that I missed.  I had actually bought 20 pretzels (I’m not sure why I bought so many – I just made the decision on the spot), and when I handed the man the bag he remarked that it was quite a few pretzels.  It was a perfect entre to suggest that perhaps he could share some with someone he meets on his way home.  I think I could have done so in a way that didn’t in any way diminish the gentleness of the moment.  It got me thinking that while I don’t want to force a “pay it forward” element into every act, when an opportunity is presented, it’s worth suggesting it.
     I suppose there are some who might argue that to suggest one pay it forward may take away from the spontaneous nature of the kindness and that it’s better to let people do whatever they will naturally do.  But the more I think about it, the less I agree. 
     If I stand in front of a room full of people and ask for volunteers to help me with a project and no one raises their hand, I’ve learned that this does not necessarily mean no one is willing to help.  Most people simply don’t volunteer.  However, if I specifically ask individual people if they will help, most often they’ll gladly do so (even though they wouldn’t necessarily have raised their hands in the large group setting).  Most people just need a more direct prompt.  I think the same is true with regard to paying it forward.
     While some people might naturally respond to kindness provided to them by doing something nice for another, I suspect this is less common.  However, if it’s suggested that they “repay” the kindness by doing something kind for someone else, they would readily and eagerly do so.  I don’t think that suggesting a kindness be paid forward in any way diminishes the act.  And quite possibly, it significantly increases the odds that the kindness spreads from person to person in a more viral kind of way.