Octo Observations: Random Acts of Kindness

Earlier today the phone rang, and because of caller ID I almost didn’t answer it. The last name was familiar, but the number was not…I took a chance, and boy, am I ever glad! The widower of a long ago, lovely friend who died prematurely was phoning to tell me that (while helping him sort his belongings), his daughter found a copy of my first book, Get Moving: A Joyful Search to Meet and Embrace Life Transitions published in 2002. He wanted me to know that she showed him the book, a gift to his wife, inscribed by me. He sat down and read it cover to cover. He said, “I loved it…I passed it on to a friend who has struggled with multiple moves, who also LOVED it!” Yikes, what an upper for this old girl on a steamy, hot July morning. To think that this man, whom we have not seen in  a few years, and who endured the terrible experience of watching his adored wife suffer devastating effects of a major stroke before turning 70, bothered to contact me, I felt touched to the core. “What a random act of kindness.” There was no need for a gentleman like Bill to take the trouble to call our mutual friend Sally, to learn our new phone number and to call me.  I had long ago forgotten giving Charlotte that little book. But her husband did not, and he expressed his delight and gratitude with spontaneity and sincerity. Little did he realize that his thoughtfulness made me feel seven feet tall!

As a result, I began to think. How many times a day are we recipients or deliverers of thoughtful gestures? How many times do we go out of our way to reach out to someone whom we might not have seen in a long time, just to offer a heartfelt feeling? My guess is not very often…This dear man told me he retired seven years ago, after forty years of life as a busy and successful pediatrician. Obviously, his nurturing qualities were well suited to treating babies and children. His innate thoughtfulness is deeply woven into his character. Most folks would look at that paperback book, written 17 years ago, and toss it into the “donate” pile. But not Bill. Although I received many kind notes and messages shortly after Get Moving was published, it has been almost ten years since anyone has mentioned it. And to think it still resonated with a few people made me happier than I can say. If only I could turn around and “pay it forward” to someone else…that thought is on my mind and in my heart. Maybe we can light fires in ourselves so that we do whatever possible to make someone else’s day a bit brighter… fill it with new meaning. I intend to try.

We can always think of a dozen reasons to avoid going out of our way. We can always rationalize our actions by saying, “Well, maybe tomorrow, or I am too busy right now.” But truth be told, taking each moment for what it is worth is a gift we give ourselves. Grab any opportunity to say a nice, unexpected word. Always try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. All around us we are witnesses to signs of anger and disrespect. All around us we see evidence of rudeness, whether it is on the highway, in our work places, or even finding a piece of trash on the road. We may think, “oh isn’t that awful. Why would anyone behave like that?” But what do we do about it?  Do we slow down and let another car merge in front of us, do we pause for a waiting car to enter our lane, do we give someone unpleasant the benefit of the doubt? Do we smile and wave when we see someone we know, even casually, walking along the street? Some do, some don’t. Occasionally, when I am walking, I tuck a little plastic grocery bag into a pocket.  If I see a food wrapper on the ground or even a soda can, I pick it up and take it to our own trash barrel. Surprising how good one feels by such a simple gesture.

Sparking an interest in random acts of kindness led me to the the internet, which is today’s version of our childhood Encyclopaedia Britannica. I learned about two young women who founded an active movement called YOU MATTER. Each November they launch a YOU MATTER MARATHON, NO RUNNING NECESSARY.  “YMM is creating and enriching positive connections between people and within communities. Over 100,000 people from all 50 states and 71 countries have shared over a million (YOU MATTER) cards. Results are astounding. 61% of participants report that they achieve a greater sense of gratitude and enhanced connection with others. 51% report enhanced compassion for others; and 50% achieve enhanced levels of personal happiness. The Lesson? One small gesture and two small words can help forge connections and spread kindness, compassion and happiness.” If thisinterests you, just Google YOU MATTER, and” sign up to receive your 30 cards in the mail, free of charge. Once you sign up you’ll receive an email confirmation confirming your participation and giving you all the information you need to have a great Marathon.” I have signed up.

My Google search also introduced me to another impressive story. One day during 1982 a young woman named Anne Herbert, while sitting in a restaurant in Sausalito, California, wrote on a placemat, these memorable words: “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” Someone noticed that placemat, shared the message, and history was created. The word spread. In her short life, Anne, a writer and assistant editor of CoEvolution Quarterly, later to be called the Whole Earth Review, dedicated her all too short life to pursuing her belief in making our country a better place to live and work. According to Wikipedia, “a random act of kindness is a non-premeditated, inconsistent action designed to offer kindness towards the outside world.” Full credit for this belief is given to Anne, who was born in Ohio in 1950 and lived most of her life in California. Although too young when she died in 2015, we learn that she achieved fame posthumously via her book: Book of Random Kindness: A Message of Wisdom and Hope. This publication was named Winner of the Independent Book Publisher 2016 IPPY award, and earned kudos as the Outstanding Book of the Year, Good Medal Book Award and Peacemaker of the Year choice. Anne is also known for her belief that, “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times with no libraries!” She was an avid reader.

How often we have heard Anne’s now famous words echoed. It is interesting that at this lovely retirement facility where my husband and I reside, we are encouraged to follow that rejoinder. (Frequently our morning newspaper appears tucked up against our front door; the thoughtful action by a caring neighbor.) As Area Rep for our neighborhood of cottages, I attend monthly meetings of the Council to hear the news of Cedarfield, and to listen to reports by residents serving on various committees. My job is to take the concerns of our neighbors to the meetings and to share them. Luckily, our area is filled with nice people, and concerns or griefs are few. Nevertheless, sometimes people express either legitimate or perceived worries. Impressive to me is the way our Council President handles each person. He has an even tempered, non-judgmental approach. As you can imagine, as some folks age, they become super picky, especially since they feel they are paying dearly to live here. To me, being here, in one of the best full care facilities in the state of Virginia, is a “high class problem!”

President Tom begins each meeting with a request we share examples of random acts of kindness which we may have witnessed during the past month. These thoughtful deeds can be performed by staff or residents. By accentuating the positive, the mood of the meeting becomes generally kinder and more thoughtful. I admire Tom’s gentle leadership style, and believe his demeanor evokes a more thoughtful atmosphere in which to conduct community living business.

When we consider all the areas of our lives in which we interact with people of different ages, doesn’t it seem essential that we think twice, take deep breaths, and be the kind of people who see the good around us rather than the rancorous aspects so prevalent in today’s culture? 

Criticizing versus praising has a negative impact on one’s body. Especially in our fractious political culture of 2019. Isn’t it healthier that we accentuate the positive, and soften the negative as much as possible? Isn’t it better that we look for whatever good is around us or in anyone else, rather than focus on what we do not like? Isn’t it essential that as adults we exemplify laudable attitudes to our youngsters? We all learn by example.

By saying something genuinely nice to someone in distress or doing something thoughtful for someone in need, a genuine feeling of happiness surges through ourselves. And by all means, let’s give credit where credit is due. Never hold back. Say something meaningful to someone who matters to you. Be kind to those who work in thankless tasks, treat everyone with the respect that you want for yourself, and never, never imagine that anyone’s life is easier or better than yours. No one alive travels a life journey without bumps along the way. 

Truth be told, Bill’s surprise phone call left an indelible impression on me. With all my heart, I hope I can be a more thoughtful, kinder, considerate person. After all, aren’t we each responsible for making our own choices?

Joy Nevin is the author of Joy of Retirement – Live, Love, and Learn. Click to buy on Amazon.

Top photot: Bigstock