I used to think that the random acts of kindness I chose to undertake had to work out well for the target. That is, I had to do something that somehow improved someone’s life in order to get credit in the universe or to gain the boost in my own happiness. My happiness guru, Gretchen Rubin, once said that random acts of kindness made her suspicious… “why would the car in front of me at the toll booth pay my way?” I call that a random act of random kindness. That is, the receiver has absolutely no idea and is not in a situation where assistance is warranted. On the flip side, carrying bags for an elderly woman who’s struggling to get to her car with her packages warrants assistance. I try to make my acts random… but warranted. The kindness has to meet an identified need, I thought. Holding the door open for the person behind me. Letting a waiting car enter traffic in front of me. Picking up a dropped item and handing it back to the dropper. You get it. In theory, my happiness boost would be in addition to the appreciation boost of the target. It sounds a bit selfish but then the whole concept of helping others to feel happier yourself does too. The thing is, it works exactly this way. Doing unto others [in a good way] feels good!
I recently discovered something new and interesting while performing a random act of kindness. I found that it doesn’t always, or even have to, work out the way I think it should… for either party actually.
On the way to dropping the boys off to school, in a rush to get back to my home town for a CPSE meeting, I noticed a pigeon flailing in the middle of the street at a busy intersection. The poor bird had apparently been clipped by a passing car and as others rushed past to get where they were going, they drove over the bird — wheels on either side — so as not to crush it. It disturbed me to think that this poor bird was injured and terrified while cars continued to pass over it again and again. Despite already being late, I pulled over and ran out into the intersection to pick the bird up. Amazingly calm, the bird allowed me to gently lift it out of harms way. I walked to a nearby house and placed the bird carefully in the grass. This beautiful bird, suddenly peaceful, allowed me to lift it’s wings one by one to make sure they were intact… They were. It was as if he recognized I was there to help him. He quietly nestled into the grass to rest as I took my leave. Though it was cold and I felt immense guilt abandoning him there, the boys still had to get to school and I still had to get back for my meeting. I worried for his well-being but felt I had little choice. So I gently touched his head, said a little prayer and left. The rest of the day, I kept thinking about that poor little bird. Hoping it had flown away. Thinking that pigeons don’t migrate and that it wouldn’t be too cold for him to sit in the grass until he felt strong and calm enough to fly away. I’d saved his life, I thought. I hoped.
Sadly, on the way home from the afternoon school pick-ups, I saw that the pigeon was flipped over, one wing extended into the air… He had died right there on the lawn where I’d left him. I was overcome with regret that I hadn’t kept the pigeon in my car to help nurse him back to health, or to bring him to a wildlife veterinarian who could do so. Slowly, I realized that no effort on my part would have saved that bird’s life. His injury was fatal. His fate sealed before I ever stopped to perform my random act of kindness. So, had my actions made any difference whatsoever?
Recently I’ve watched my elderly father fighting the unfortunate illness of Alzheimer’s. Losing his memory and his way, not gracefully but in a slow and emotionally painful process. Masking his fear with humor… I know he is scared. I thought about how he’d expressed his desire, just a handful of years ago, that he never wanted to go this way. And I thought about that pigeon, flailing in the street, cars rushing past, driving over him. Terrified at what had befallen him. He too, I’m certain, would not have chosen to go this way.
My father is much like the pigeon. Flailing. And, as his illness progresses, in a way, I am there in the street with him… flailing. Afraid of what is to come. Looking for a peaceful place, a peaceful state of mind, to live out these last moments… however long they may last.
I gently carried that pigeon away from his terror. Relieved him of his frantic flailing. Perhaps I calmed his fear, if only for a moment. Maybe I brought him to that peaceful place where he could relax and come to accept what was happening. That the end of his life was upon him. And, recognizing the end was near, perhaps he sat in the grass, marveling at what a beautiful blue sky there was today; what a wondrous world he’d had the opportunity to affect; what an incredible life he’d managed to live; and what a legacy he was leaving behind.
Or perhaps, that bird performed the random act of kindness for me. Showing me the peaceful place in the warm sun to relax and stop being afraid.
I hope when it’s my time, if I am flailing, that someone is there, to perform the random act of kindness that affords me a peaceful place to spend those last moments (however long they last). Or perhaps, I will not be flailing, remembering that pigeon and marveling at the blueness of the sky.
That random act of kindness was far more profound than I could ever have imagined…