Do acts of kindness change the world?
It was cold, -10°C. The sky was cloudless and the sun shines created long shadows in the street, broken be stripes of bright light. On my way home I took a detour to have a short walk along the canal. The surface of the water was partially frozen and swans rested on the ice surface.
There was an unusual stillness, as there were almost no people venturing out. The cold air on my chicks did nearly hurt and I struggled to keep myself warm. Nevertheless, I appreciate the beauty around me while walked quickly. It was a magic but also terrifying feeling to be out there in the cold.
The cold made people close up
It did not take me long to head towards the next subway station. On the platform, many people wearing dark coats, caps and big scarfs waited for the next train. A girl kept moving her weight from the right leg to the left one, trying to keep warm.
The yellow train arrived and the crowd stepped in. People were by themselves. They looked at their smartphones or gazed in front of themselves. It was as if besides the physical separation of the big coats worn by people, there was an additional separation. As if the cold would also cool down the openness of people to any interaction with their surroundings.
At the next station, two young blond men came in. They had the same haircut and the same type of snickers. One carried two red bulls. He asked his friend: “Do you want to sit down?” In a blink, another man changed his seat to the opposite side to leave two seats close to each other free.
A random act of kindness
The man reacted impulsively, he noticed the situation and just did it. The young men were noticeably surprised. The thanked him and sat close to each other.
After a few stations, the man went out. An older lady carrying a big shopping bag slowly stepped in. There were no more free seats. One of the young men offered her his seat and she thankfully accepted.
I was standing in a corner, observing the situation. I was enchanted and intrigued. My impression that everyone is disconnected from each other that I felt a few minutes earlier was wrong. People did notice and did care for each other. Or at least some people did. It was a beautiful surprise.
Does kindness spread?
I was also intrigued by the dynamics I just witnessed. Was there a connection between the kind act of the first man switching seats for the young men and the kind act of the young man to the older lady? If the first act would not have happened, would the second act have happened?
Maybe the young man acted because of the social pressure of the people witnessing the event. Or maybe because receiving kindness makes us more prone to be kind (there is actually some research about this!). Or maybe it was a coincidence. We cannot know for sure if the two events were connected.
We don’t know the impact of our kindness
What I also found interesting is that the man that switched seats had left already when the second act of kindness happened. Assuming that the second act of kindness was influenced by the first one, the person doing the first act did not witness it. He may have created a ripple of kindness, but would not have got a direct proof of it.
This makes me reflect. It can be very easy to be kind to someone and maybe kindness spreads. In any case, we cannot track the complete impact of our kindness. But does it matter?
When we are kind, we do it because it feels right to our inner voice. When a family member is sick we let everything go and help as much as we can. Without expecting anything in return and without knowing if the time we spend with the sick person is going to have an impact.
Do we need to believe that our genuine actions have a ripple effect to perform them? We don’t have to. But what if they actually do have a ripple effect?
The new story we can decide to believe
I found out that many people already thought about these questions. Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, formulated the principle of interbeing. In this worldview: “the self and universe mirror each other; whatever happens to any being is also happening in some corner of ourselves. Every act we take ripples out to affect the whole world, and eventually comes back to affect ourselves as well.”
How would a world in which we believe this story looks like, as opposed to the assumption that what we do doesn’t matter? How would a world in which every single act of kindness would be appraised, independently from its expected outreach and scale?
I found the question discussed by Charles Eisenstein in his article “Scale in the story of interbeing” very intriguing. He challenges the idea that we need to do something big to have a big impact, suggesting that scaling-down, doing little acts based on the voice of our hearts rather then the calculating mind could actually make a bigger shift happen.
Take up the random acts of kindness challenge
What if everyone would act with a genuine kindness, as the first man that switched seats?
I like to believe that the acts done by the men in the train were glimpses, of a ripple effect generated by an honest genuine act of kindness. I challenge you to try some random acts of kindness, while being aware and accepting, that you may not know what the impact and the ripples created around you will be.
Take up the challenge: Do a random act of kindness today. Smile to a stranger during a cold morning. Let your sit on the train.
Find more ideas and get inspired by the random acts of kindness organisation and share with me your experiences in the comments of the blog.
Read about how we may all be interconnected to each other and the planet in this essay of Charles Eisenstein.