Recently I took my wife, daughter, and mother-in-law to the local movie theatre to catch one of the holiday-season releases. The theatre was predictably crowded and empty seats clustered together were at a premium. Several minutes after we found ourselves a comfortable spot, I saw a large group of older adults enter the theatre, looking vainly for a chance to sit together. Noticing their challenge, a man sitting two rows behind us stood up and happily offered to move to another row so that a larger section could be freed up to accommodate them.
It was such a simple gesture of kindness that it would have been easy to overlook it. As I reflected upon this later, I had two predominant thoughts. My first thought was about how accommodating the man had been and how his gesture made this small event more comfortable for a group of strangers. My second thought, somewhat embarrassingly, was to wonder why it didn’t even occur to me to consider if there was a way that I could have been more helpful to them.
For some time now, I’ve been fascinated by the “Random Acts of Kindness” movement and other similar efforts to change how people relate to and support one another. While the news media continues to focus mostly on stories of crime, disaster, and misfortune, grassroots movements led by everyday citizens are popping up everywhere, spreading positive stories and innovative ideas about people actively engaged in making a difference. Technology and, in particular, the emergence of social media, has made it easier than ever to spread ideas and for people in disparate parts of the world to connect, engage, and collaborate in ways that were never before possible. It’s truly an exciting time for change.
And yet, of all the change movements making their way across the globe, the one that intrigues me most is the effort to spread more kindness.
Kindness has a beautiful simplicity to it. It can be practiced by anyone, at any time, regardless of one’s financial state, socio-economic status, religion, culture, nationality, or age. It doesn’t require government support or formal training or a research grant. It’s easy to do, yet its impact can be huge.
It seems to me that kindness is sort of like a lubricant in human interactions. When we’re kind to each other, it makes everything easier, smoother, more relaxed, and even more effective. The world seems to purr along more efficiently, with less friction. But when we we’re gruff, selfish, or disrespectful, not to mention being mean-spirited, we add a level of stress and tension to situations that tends to make them less satisfactory and less effective, like gears grinding against each other without enough oil.
Picture a gathering where people bicker at each other with snide comments of a hurtful nature, or nag each other incessantly like picking at an open sore. These types of interactions, whether in families, schools, politics, or any other setting, are filled with stress and anxiety, like a shadow cast over the entire event. People tend to shrink and they become less than their full selves. In contrast, think of a get-together where everyone is kind to each other, looking for ways to support and help each other. There’s a lightness in the air, and people shine, and blossom, and flourish. Kindness seems to connect people and to make all of our efforts go more smoothly.
Why Don’t We See More Kindness?
So why then don’t we practice kindness with more regularity? And more importantly, what would the world look like if we did? As to the first question, I don’t really know, though I suspect it may have something to do with our tendency to be self-absorbed, i.e. to be so caught up in our own heads and in our own worlds that we fail to notice either the impact we have on other people or the opportunity that exists to have a greater impact on them. That’s certainly the case for me. By nature, I tend to be more cerebral anyway. I think sometimes I walk around with a big capsule around my head, deep in my own thoughts, avoiding (sometimes intentionally and sometimes not) a more intimate connection with other people. I probably didn’t think to assist the strangers in the movie theatre because I was consumed with my own little world.
Kindness has a big component of compassion, which is about connection at its core. I suppose there’s an element of vulnerability here too. For those of us less comfortable with vulnerability, this is not something we embrace easily. When kindness happens between people, they connect at a very human level. It’s hard to connect with other people when we’re “protected” inside our own bubble.
As to the second question I raised—what would the world look like if we each practiced more kindness—I’m curious to find out, and so I’m embarking upon my own personal “kindness project.”
The Kindness Project
It’s important to note that I’m not taking on this project to test any specific hypothesis or to prove any particular point (other than perhaps to test my own capacity to change). In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I see this project as one of exploration and discovery. I don’t know what will happen, what I’ll learn, how it will impact me, or how it will impact others. And that’s just the point—to simply act, and then to reflect upon and record what happens.