So Just How Important Is a Simple Act of Kindness?

John DriggsLove is something if you give it away,
Give it away, give it away.
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.

It’s just like a magic penny,
Hold it tight and you won’t have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many
They’ll roll all over the floor.

— Melvina Reynolds, first verses of the Magic Penny Song, 1949

Most of us think our small act of caring for a neighbor was no big deal, it was just the right thing to do at the time. Few of us even see our kind act as something kind. Without thinking we just do it and move on. What we did was not done to show off, get an award or expect something in return. So the day we shoveled our neighbor’s walk or found her lost dog was just the right thing to do. In fact it was a lot more than the right thing to do. It likely meant the world to our neighbor and to ourselves.

Now it’s true that not everything we do for others is a profound act of love. Some things we do because we have to or because we want to score points with another or because we don’t want to be seen as a bad person. We go to our children’s sports games because that’s what is expected of parents. We contribute to our church because it would look bad if the collection came around and we put nothing in the basket. Sometimes we feel like a colossal failure in life so that mowing our neighbor’s lawn is the least we can do to be a decent human. All of these imperfect ways of caring do count but probably not as much as when we reach into our hearts towards another and do some kind act of simple love. We do it for its own sake because we put ourself in the same boat as another person. We share our humanity with another in a way that is meaningful towards another. It is an act of altruistic love, be it ever so tiny. Such small acts of caring are real miracles!

Let me give you recent examples of altruistic love from my own life. Out of the blue two friends of mine were diagnosed with fatal illnesses. I was, to put it mildly, horrified and in shock. These are people who have been supremely generous and very close to me over many years. It just didn’t seem fair that two such fine people would have to suffer. My distress lead me to a distorted thought: Couldn’t God have picked some selfish wretch to be put out of his (and everyone else’s) misery?! This couldn’t be right! I could think of many people to take their place. My daze took over my life and I wound up leaving my beloved car of 18 years unlocked with the key in the car overnight on a busy street. The next morning I ran to get my car and of course it was not there. I just didn’t want to deal with my stolen car. I blamed myself and became disillusioned as my community no longer felt safe. This was the worst part of having something stolen. But God had other plans for me.

I decided to deal with the car as best I could by keeping in mind how my car ordeal was small potatoes compared to the health challenges of my friends. It was obvious that I needed to visit my friends and offer my support and most importantly not be alone with my own suffering. I told at least 20 acquaintences and friends about my travail. The quick outpouring of their love, good advice and moral support completely transformed me. I felt so moved by the abundance of their caring that I told myself, “Gee if I knew I would get this much love I would had my car stolen a lot sooner!” I just sat in a cradle of caring and loved every minute of it. My missing car drifted to the back of my mind. I became serene. Soon my disillusionment melted and I felt motivated to see my ailing friend. Later I thanked my many pals for their abundant caring. I got a call from the police letting me know that my car was incorrectly towed and that I could retrieve it at the impound lot!

I’m sure none of my friends felt that they had done is anything special. But in fact what they did, as simple as it was, was indeed very special, even beyond words. Rather than be cynical I felt the safety net of caring in my life. Whoever took my car did me a big favor!

Why do we resist seeing our own small acts of kindness as a bid deal? The policeman who risks his life each day in public service. The teacher of our children who spots some special talent and stays after class to develop and inspire that skill in our kids. The older person down the block that repeats himself as he shares bits of wisdom he finds missing in our own lives. Many of these small personal acts occur every day and go unnoticed. They happen but are not cherished. We are all so busy that we miss half of the miracles that happen each day in our lives. Our mindlessness and distractibility rob us of what is so rich and sustaining in our lives. We could slow down and be mindful of the abundance of love in our lives. Why don’t we?

Too many of us are so scared of our own vulnerability and need for love that we don’t want to feel its presence in our bodies when it happens. When our hearts beat too strongly, tears form in the corners of our eyes or our knees get too weak from the sincerity and passion of a loved one we freak out and fail to accept our shared humaneness. So we just live in our heads and can’t accept that what we do sometimes for others is a very big deal. We can’t see the depth of what we offer others because to do so would mean we would have to cherish what others offer us. The giving and receiving go hand in hand. It’s hard for any of us to be that important to somebody else despite how much we crave for that to happen.

Why are we so afraid of giving ourselves to love?
Many of us resist the emotionality of giving or receiving love. We don’t like to even use the word “love.” Cool detachment and rationality are culturally sanctioned values. We’re supposed to act like we don’t need anybody and that nothing seems to touch us. Being emotional is equated with being weak-minded, dependent or manipulative. For many of us emotionality makes us look foolish and we use the word “love” as an intellectual decision. Heaven help us when our pet gets run over by a car or our long-term girlfriend finds another lover!

Small acts of kindness are the practicing of authentic love, caring for someone for its own sake.

Many of us are afraid of the loss of control that giving ourselves to love entails. We may have been hurt in our childhood by imperfect parental love or fate and we want never again to go through that experience. We develop an avoidant pattern in our connections with others. Our avoidant pattern keeps us from ever feeling deeper love and the delight of making a difference to others. When we avoid emotional love we remain stuck in our emotional past and don’t even see when people are actually caring for us or that we are caring for them. Simple acts of kindness seem meaningless to us and we ignore them.

How can we give ourselves to love?
There must be others ways of feeling loved besides having our cars stolen or having a serious illness. All it takes to change this pattern of avoiding love is to tune in to others and make some small offering from our heart. How it will be received is beyond our control. We will be rewarded just by the doing of the act. It doesn’t have to be a big act of caring, just a small act. Once Mother Teresa was asked how she learned to be so abundantly generous. She said, “We don’t do great things. We do small things with great love.”

It’s vital to pause when we either give or receive love and cherish the sensation of caring as it washes over our body. Often it feels like a warm, calming and joyful experience. It fills us up with a sensation of security and fullness, more so than any joyride in life. Initially it may scare us to expose our emotionality to others as it looks very uncool.

We may worry that we will be rejected or that we will lose our identities if we go out on a limb with love. But just the opposite usually happens. People respond to our kindness with their kindness and we will be confident enough to be separate from how others respond. Love is the best risk you can ever take. In the long run you never lose with it. However, it does take courage to be kind. You may need support from a professional helper or support group to make the leap.

What can you expect from small acts of kindness?
You can expect miracles! Not every time. But a lot more often than you ever imagined. Just as I was writing this article I got a call from a new college grad who lives in South Dakota on a Native American reservation. Out of the blue he called me to thank me for my many small donations to his school over the years. The words that went with the donations as well as the offerings made a huge difference in his life.

I was flabbergasted with his call and thanked him profusely for taking the time to acknowledge my part in his success. I cherished his call, especially the timing of it. He told me he plans to go into medical school and study immunology as he wants to help his people to overcome their intergenerational trauma. I applauded him big time. Indeed, the magic penny had multiplied, just as the song says!

***

“Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be explained by those symbols called words. Their meaning can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

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