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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

It is National Do Something Nice Day, which seems like a topic worth considering, especially after the week I had of dealing with decidedly NOT nice people. It’s got me pretty wound up, which is exactly why I don’t want to talk about them and exactly why thinking about nicer people is preferable.

But I already used the word nice, and I didn’t get to day 270-something to start repeating words now. So I’m going to take this in a tangential direction and talk about kindness, instead.

They’re sort of twins but not identical. Holding a door for someone is nice. Tipping 15% on decent service is nice. It is also fairly rote.

Kindness, on the other hand, is more deliberate and requires a person to go marginally above and beyond. It involves a tad more selflessness.

It is also a much rarer animal.

Lots of people are actually quite good at being nice while simultaneously impaling you with it.

The woman we spoke with at the AT&T store was nice all the while as she was screwing us over. So the word has tarnished a bit.

But kindness is offering something, giving something of yourself without taking in return.

That’s the thing I want to reflect on.

Funny the things that come to mind when you start a process like this.

Two incidents immediately popped into my head when I landed on the word.

The first was an attempted kindness.

Keep in mind that I was in a snit as I initially pondered the topic, which is probably why this particular story came to mind. It happened maybe six years ago, as Ralph and I were driving back from Manhattan College where he was teaching, to Brigantine where we were living. We swung by a corner bodega to grab some snacks, and being rush hour in the Bronx, there was barely room to drive let alone park. So I hopped out of the car and ran into the store while he drove around the block to meet me on my way out.

I picked up a couple of things, then waited on the corner for him to return. While I waited, a bedraggled looking man approached and asked me for money. He gave me his rendition of a down-on-my-luck story and said he was hungry and wanted to get something to eat.

So I made an offer. Go into the store and pick anything you want to eat. I’ll buy it for you.

He insisted he just wanted money.

Now, I’m a sucker for a good sob story but I’m not stupid. I wasn’t going to hand him money to go snort it or smoke it or shoot it up. So I told him I did not have money to give him, but if he was hungry I would buy him anything he wanted to eat.

This is the part of the story where you go aw, well isn’t that kind? Unless you’re a guy who isn’t as hungry as he is desperate for a fix, in which case you become instantly enraged and start screaming at the person who just offered to buy you dinner.

Let’s just say that it was a good thing that Ralph pulled up just then. He slammed on the brakes, jumped out to get between us, and hustled me off to the car while this guy flailed around and yelled unsavory things.

Note to self: kindness sometimes backfires.

The second incident that popped into my head was less dramatic and more in keeping with the theme. It happened quite some time ago, before we were even married. We were going somewhere and putting stuff in the car. In the process I put my purse down… on the roof of the car, where I subsequently forgot it and drove off.

Seems like the whole “brain – off” thing has been plaguing me most of my life.

Anyway, it didn’t even occur to me that my purse was missing until much later, at which point I figured it was gone for good and did a bit of wailing about having to cancel all the credit cards and get a new driver’s license and all the things you have to do when you carry your entire life in a six inch bag.

But lo!

Not long afterwards some people called to say they had seen my purse fly off the roof of the car and stopped to pick it up. They had it safe and sound.

Now, this was pre-internet days when you had to actually look someone up in the phone book. These people not only stopped what they were doing to pick up my purse from the road, but found me and let me know. And… wait for it… when they returned it? Every last cent I had in there was still there.

Now that’s an act of kindness.

Of course many people have done many kind things for me over the course of my life, and it would take the rest of it to remember them and years I don’t have left to document them. My family alone is responsible for more acts of kindness and selflessness than I could repay even if I tried, and sometimes I am bad at trying.

My brother Eric who stopped his life to rebuild our condo when we wanted to sell it so we could make a better profit, and asked for no money in return.

My brother Kevin who threw us a 25th wedding anniversary party and went all out to cook and decorate when we left the apartment for a few hours and had no idea we would come home to a celebration.

My nephew Andrew who since he was about four years old has somehow had the presence of mind to think up and find gifts for me that match my personality so perfectly.

And myriad other kindnesses large and small that, if you are reading this and your name has not been mentioned… you know who you are.

The thing about kindness that I think we tend to overlook – myself included – is that it doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. It just has to be one human reaching out to another to show that we are not all islands, but an interconnected one. This is a hard thing to remember on days when everyone seems to be unconcerned at best, and outright hostile at worst.

I will leave you with this one example. For the past couple of months, my family has been trying to collect lottery scratch tickets from every state in the United States, for a project one of my brothers is doing on his YouTube channel. This is no small feat when you consider places like… Wyoming.

To achieve this goal, I’ve reached out to every friend and family member I can think up and asked them to either send one from their state or to reach out to other people they may know in other states. The results have been, at times, both surprising and encouraging.

I got one from a colleague’s aunt in South Carolina. One from a friend’s brother, one from another friend who picked one up the last time he traveled on a business trip. Another from someone I only know through a word game we play together online. A couple from people who I don’t even know, whom I was unable to thank because they didn’t even tell me who they were.  And one from a cousin I haven’t spoken to since we were about ten years old.

I’ve told all these people I’d pay for the tickets and some of them take the money and some of them don’t. My cousin specifically told me that instead of giving her the money, I should pay it forward to someone else. So I did.

In town there is usually a kid who stands on the corner and plays the violin with a bucket on the ground for donations to attend some event/go to some competition/pay for some lessons. It’s not always the same kid, but usually one of two or three. I ignore them.

Last time, I put ten dollars in the bucket instead.

Will that kid remember me? I doubt it.

Will that ten dollars make a difference? Maybe. If it does, the world will be a little better. And that’s the best we can hope for.

I’m going to take my own advice and go be kind to someone now. And try to be better at doing that more often. If nothing else it will remind me that for every infuriating moment inspired by an interaction there can be a corresponding interaction that’s worth remembering.

Photo: a note that came with one of the tickets that someone sent. Instead of throwing it out I kept it as a reminder that kindness exists.