29 Days: That’s a Wrap

IMG_0817On October 8th, 2013 I embarked on a 29-day random act of kindness project in celebration of my 29th Birthday. What I learned may surprise you.

1) Being kind doesn’t always feel good. When I began the project I imagined experiencing immense satisfaction after completing each act. I imagined smiling ear to ear, tears welling up in my eyes, as I congratulated myself on a job well done. I frequently got emotionally reading other people’s stories of kindness that my own adventures had to lead to the same feel-good reaction. Right?

Wrong. Most of the time after finishing my act of the day I felt fairly indifferent. Sometimes I even felt downright disappointed. It took most of the project to figure out why.

First, I entered into this endeavor with very specific expectations. First, I would do nice things. Then people would be happy and appreciative. Finally, I would feel good. I forgot that out of those three elements I have no control over the second one: the reactions of others.

Maybe it’s because people don’t expect a stranger to do something nice. Maybe it’s because what I considered to be a kind gesture they considered to be an annoyance. Maybe it’s because I am terrible at interpreting emotions. Whatever the reason, peoples’ reactions were mostly unenthused.

Have you ever watched Ellen or Oprah? You know that moment where she gives an unsuspecting guest a check for 10,000, a new car, or some other extravagant gift? The person breaks down crying, hands covering the mouth in disbelief. Apparently fun-sized candy bars and $10 gift cards don’t elicit quite the same reaction.

Expecting that they would was doing myself a disservice. Expecting that they should was doing the recipient a disservice. Acting with kindness shouldn’t have self-serving motives; it kind of defeats the purpose. It’s not wrong to hope that what I did made people happy but it’s only going to be frustrating to me if I hinge the success of that random act on exactly how happy I make the recipient or how that happiness is expressed. I had to learn to just be content in the knowledge that I had done something nice, regardless of the outcome.

Secondly, a lot of the time I didn’t get to see the reactions others had to what I was doing. I equate it to getting invested in a really good book only to find out that the last couple chapters are missing. It’s a lot of build up with no resolution. It really forced me to evaluate my motivations behind the project. Was I only being kind to get something in return? Is it a bad thing if I was? Does that negate the good I might have done? Is it even possible to be completely altruistic?

I don’t yet know the answers to these questions, but I am fairly certain of one thing. Acting with kindness will always be the right thing to do, regardless of how I feel about it. Or in other words, things don’t always have to feel good for them to be good.

2) Being kind isn’t life-altering. I made the mistake of entering into this with the mindset that I could change the world, one random act at a time. I thought I would see a tangible and immediate effect. I’m finishing the project with a slightly different perspective.

One small random act of kindness is simply that, one act. The chances of it having any far-reaching effects are minimal. Setting off a chain reaction of kindness is a nice in theory, but the reality is more akin to pushing over one domino that may or not be close enough to hit the next.

Does that mean I shouldn’t even try? No. It means I have to try harder. It means every one has to try harder. To use a sports analogy, if I’m shooting free throws and can only make 1/10 shots, then I better shoot that ball ten times if I want to make the shot. Having something be challenging isn’t an incentive to give up, it’s an invitation to try harder.  

I’m starting to think of acts of kindness less like dominoes in a row and more like drops of water behind a damn. One kind act isn’t going to catalyze a major change. It takes an accumulation of acts, slowly building over time, to finally burst through.

I also have to remind myself that from my vantage point it’s hard to see the big picture. Like a musician tasked with learning one instrument’s part in a symphony, it’s hard to appreciate the notes you’re playing until they are combined with the rest of the orchestra.

I am only person, carrying out one random act of kindness at a time. But so is every one else. We are all only one person. I imagine if I could step back and see all the single acts occurring in unison they might start to look a little more monumental. They might start to sound like music.

3) “Random” is a very misleading term. Very carefully planned and executed acts of kindness are more descriptive of what I actually did.

Think of it like this. Being kind is a skill, and like any skill you have to practice if you want to get better at it. Recognizing opportunities for random acts of kindness became easier throughout the 29 days as I carried out my intentional acts. The elderly lady carrying groceries that I walked right past on day one I noticed by day eight. The guy begging for change that I didn’t see on day two got my attention by day ten.

I don’t feel that this project lacking true randomness detracts from the experience at all. If we all are waiting for opportunities to present themselves, who knows how long we’d be waiting. Like all things in life, it never hurts to be proactive.

Where to go from here? With the 29 days over, I’ve been thinking a lot about the direction I want this blog to head. More ramblings about my own acts of kindness? A report of acts of kindness from around the world? Interviews with people who are making a difference through their kind acts?

I’d love your input!

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One thought on “29 Days: That’s a Wrap

  1. Tracy says:

    I’m so glad you posted a summary piece. I was wondering if it would continue. I think that your experiences have raised my awareness of chances to be kind. Thanks for your good examples!

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