It Pays to Be Kind
When I was four years old and out to dinner with my grandparents at their favorite suburban Chicago club, a stranger approached our table, gave me a dollar bill and a rose and told me I was the best-behaved little girl he’d ever seen. Then he smiled at all of us, and quietly left the restaurant with his wife. My grandparents had no idea who he was or where he had gotten the rose—the restaurant didn’t have flowers on the tables—and we never saw him again.
I am sure my grandparents were grateful to him, because from then on, I was always on my absolute best behavior in restaurants, just in case the guy with the money and the flowers showed up again.
But more importantly, I have been forever grateful to him. For his insight into a little girl who was actually kind of bored by her grandparents’ stuffy country club dining experience, but determined to be “grownup” and not show it. For the unexpected grace and beauty of the moment. For the spontaneous kindness of his act, which has remained vivid in my memory for over forty years now.
His small gesture was just a ripple in a single, small pond. But that ripple has spread over the decades. It is reflected in the times I play peek-a-boo on a bus or a train with a small child who looks like he or she is about to lose it. In the dollar bills I occasionally leave somewhere…a park bench, a shopping basket, a waiting room. In the books I treasure that I sometimes spontaneously give to strangers, or leave lying where I hope they’ll be picked up and loved—and passed on again.
When I remember that man, I think of the power of small acts of kindness, and the ripple effect whose final outcome we may never know. It gives me the patience to pause and make kinder choices. To see a parent yelling at their children, a sales clerk snapping at customers, a civil services employee being mean and petty, and instead of judging, to be able to say gently, “It looks like you’re having a hard day.”
It need cost us nothing to be kind. And it costs us dearly to be otherwise. Every angry word, every unkind act, diminishes us, steals our energy, and chips our souls.
In paying it forward, you’re not just repaying a kindness someone paid you. You’re paying yourself, too. And the extra breathing space, the grace of that moment—why, that can live with you for years. Maybe even a lifetime.
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