My spirit of giving has been on my mind a lot lately and my #blessed family has been paying the price. The awakening? Absolutely pandemic related, but not necessarily in the way one might think. We have reached the part of the pandemic in which our feet have started dragging in a way in which we feel like we are trudging through twelve feet of snow and we aren’t even fighting it anymore. The thing is, we have been among the luckiest. As a family, we are relatively unscathed, save a multitude of what are truly only minor inconveniences. We have adjusted celebrations. We have postponed events. We have answered the call of shortages by switching things up, such as using cloth napkins in lieu of hoarding paper ones. And, yes, should the toilet paper drought really hit home, we would have gone to cloth there, as well. We have been touched by covid related illness and death, but on a peripheral level. A friend of a friend. A colleague’s relative. The great uncle of someone in math class. Never, knock on wood, someone who we would dearly miss.
Yes, we have been among the luckiest.
Still, the dragging feet.
Mid-2021, I picked up a book recommended to me by a friend that served as a how-to guide in re-awakening my giving heart. I have prided myself, in years past, of having an awareness of where a hand could be lent or when a kind word was needed. That awareness had blurred over the past two years, whether from a simple lack of being in public or from the barrage of stresses provided by some unusual times. When I picked up the book, A Passion for Kindness (written by a local teacher named Tamara Letter), I was flooded with familiar feelings and a growing relief that my giving heart could be easily prodded back to life.
I remembered that I could instantly turn my attitude around simply by changing someone else’s.
I remembered that kind acts did not have to be momentous occasions, that they could be simple and random and spontaneous.
I began to hold doors again (had I really stopped that for fear of a virus?) and scanning parking lots for carts that needed to be corralled. I was mindful of shoppers who could use some assistance with the actual loading of the car. I started interacting more enthusiastically with those serving me at restaurants, approaching dinners out with a desire to be encouraging rather than with frustration at lengthened wait times.
Put simply, I started being nicer.
I was surprised at how often my arms became useful in lugging kitty litter or cases of water or boxed furniture into someone’s trunk. I was surprised at how thrilled people were to hear a kind word or see a helping hand (had we forgotten about human interaction for fear of a virus?).
I started feeling happier. I began to carry a smile when I hit the aisles at the grocery store. I started to read work emails with less offense, replying with a compliment or an offer of help, first, before digging into the muck. With each tweak in myself, my desire to disperse kindness grew. I stopped worrying about pandemic positivity rates and started focusing on personal positivity alone. I remembered that random acts are breeders of endorphins and that they could act as a catalyst for others to whisper kindness down their lane.
I started thinking about how I could instill a similar attitude in my teenagers. When I looked at their small life span and realized that, essentially, one fifth of it had been spent behind a mask, distanced from friends, and dealing with disappointment, I understood why the growth of their giving hearts might have been stunted. How could I encourage them in a way that wouldn’t breed eye rolls and shrugs? My husband and son have autumn birthdays that sit one week apart. For each, a few months ago, I put together a note card collection to track the challenge that I would present to them with their cake. The top note card read:
“Your challenge this year is to perform a random act of kindness for each year of your life. It doesn’t have to be more than a simple good deed…hold a door, return a smile Put some good into our chaotic world and log each as a reminder of the act as you go.”
My husband got his 51 note cards first. Intrigued? Maybe. Enthusiastic? Also, maybe.
My son received his 16 note cards a week later. Intrigued? No. Enthusiastic? Also, no.
Strategically, I asked my husband to make sure he and my son did some of those deeds together. My husband loves an opportunity to set a good example. Right out of the gate, we had a note card worthy event as we moved a relative to a new apartment. Both were a little confused as “moving an aunt” seemed like something one just had to do as a member of the family. Yes, I explained, but also, no. This was a perfect example of doing something good and helpful and meaningful. Just because something is expected, does not mean the goodness behind it is eliminated. We showed up. We carried boxes and put together furniture and organized the kitchen. We spent hours in a dusty attic sneezing and sweating. We wondered which hour would be the last as we carried on with an increased level of exhaustion. We showed up.
Random acts do not have to be monumental.
My ask was that we, in our family, start opening our eyes to the possibility of positivity. My kids have wondered, in moments of extreme embarrassment, why I “have to speak to everyone, everywhere we go.” They do not ask in a kind and curious way. My answer? Some days, I’m just cranky. Some days, I don’t want to do the duties of the Momager. Some days, I arrive at the store with a terrible attitude and start mentally taking points away from those I pass in the aisles. I cringe when I see a mother ignoring a cart-riding child while talking on her phone. I gasp when I see a teen in a questionable outfit. I frown when I see a gentleman hustling with impatience. It’s like my bad mood brain thinks I’ve qualified for the Best Person Trophy and the award is redeemed by taking down others.
Except, I tell my kids, there is no joy in the trophy. My mental jabs actually make me feel worse because I know I am being judgy and rude, even if silently. In order to turn it around, I have learned to speak. To the mother who I think is ignoring her child, “You’re doing a great job!” To the oddly dressed teen, “Love your hair color!” To the impatient man, “Do you need help finding something?” I immediately feel happier. My words brighten the space around me. They may be cheesy and canned, but they do adjust my attitude. I may know those words are sometimes forced, but nobody else has to. And it typically doesn’t matter. When I continue past someone who I’ve just jolted with kindness, I imagine that they will do the same to the next person they see and so on. I have no proof that this actually happens, of course, but the feeling is enough for me.
I’ve seen a few social media posts that question whether we’re doing it right, these good deeds. This is not good for an over thinker. If you post a plea to stop telling people to “Have a blessed day” as it’s unfair to the atheists, you can bet I will spend the next thirty minutes wondering if it’s true, whom I’ve offended, and what a better phrase is. Today, I saw an advisory to stop paying it forward at the coffee shop (by paying it backwards) and, instead, “put your extra money in the tip jar for those who really deserve it.” The message was that paying for the coffee of someone who could clearly afford it because they were, after all, in the coffee shop was nothing more than a financial flex. No surprise then that I spent the good part of the next hour wondering if my barista was mad at me.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons my kids become shy when I’m offering smiles to strangers. Other than the usual embarrassment of being on the same planet as me, were they also worried that, if seen doing something positive, they would also be judged for that? Probably another notch in my overthinking belt but, still, it opened a conversational door. My eldest was also perplexed by the deed shaming. In her words, if someone wants to say a prayer for her, please, yes, do. Unlike me (religious freeloader), this child currently claims zero belief systems. But, in her words, if the very best thing someone can think of to do for another person is say a prayer (or buy a coffee or hold a door), then why would anyone want to stop that person from doing the very best thing they can think of?
I’ve decided to shelve my worry on whether my deeds are being rated as right or proper or with any intention of anything other than being good. I won’t waste another minute wondering if I should have done something better. Instead, I will just smile to those around me witnessing the joy that I have offered, no strings attached.
Perhaps that will be just the spark that gets someone else’s spirit of giving ignited.