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.