“Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.”
— Anne Herbert
Penn Station, New York City, noon, the beginning of summer. Eighty degrees: A perfect day. Everyone who can be outside is outside. But I have to go in to catch the train back to Jersey. I am not at full sprint, but I am moving, hungry. No breakfast, no lunch. A morning consult brings me in once a month to YAI/National Institute for People with Disabilities. I’ve done it hundreds of times. Winters, summers, I know my way around Penn Station. I have it down to a science. I get a sandwich – make the train.
There is a deli near the Seventh Avenue exit that has the best grilled vegetable panini sandwich I’ve ever had. I swear I would do the consult just to buy this sandwich.
The staff at YAI/NIPDD is eager, ask good questions and look to apply their newfound knowledge. The YAI agency works with everyone from high-risk infants to the homeless. They are dedicated. I am with them sharing what I know, but mostly I am thinking about the panini.
At the deli I get in the rear of the long line. The glass-case sampling is a marvel to look at. The front of the case is beveled out toward the line. We can lean over and salivate to the California / avocado wrap, or the Southwestern chicken and balsamic salad. Ahh, there it is, vegetable panini.
A couple joins in behind me, pointing and commenting and I overhear their conversation. He is closest to me:
“Man, that chicken looks good, but it’s too expensive.”
“Get it if you want it,” she says.
“Nah. I know it’s good, but I’ll get something else.”
“Get whatever you like.”
My eavesdropping is interrupted by a woman behind the counter. She deals with New Yorkers. She moves the line along.
The guy on the other side in front of me orders the ham and cheese panini.
“Don’t you move!” the lady behind the counter says as she points to him. “I’m going to heat it up and hand it right back to you.”
“Vegetable panini,” I blurt out, then quickly follow, “I’m not moving. I’m staying right here until you tell me I can move.”
“You got that right,” she says as she laughs.
I see the couple. Nothing about them suggests couplehood. They are standing together, but they also seem to keep a distance. She is chic and young and well-groomed, and they are of different races. He is older, has a dishrag under his frayed hat, layers of clothes that don’t match, and a sour odor to him. It is clear he hasn’t shaved or bathed in a while. Her jet-black hair is perfectly styled and cut for fashion. My natural curiosity makes me want to figure out what brings them together. I wonder to myself if they might be in a rock-fusion band, but slowly come to realize he is homeless and she is not.
“What do you want?” the lady behind the counter asks him.
He points to an oversized grilled cheese sandwich.
“You got it, honey—what about you, miss?” she says, directing her gaze to the young woman.
“I’ll have a salad.”
“Then move around these people and come to the front of the line. The salads are premade and you pick out the one you want.”
She walks to the front, the guy in front of me is handed his ham and cheese, and the woman behind the counter turns back to the oven to get mine.
Then it happened.
A man from behind the counter points at the man from the couple.
“Get out of here, get out of here, get off the line, let these people through! How many times do I have to tell you?!”
The woman behind the counter turns from the stove with my panini in her hand. She confronts the man who is yelling.
“No, no, no, no, no! He’s buying something this time.”
“He’s buying something?’
“Yeah. His grilled cheese is in the oven.”
“Yeah, it’s paid for.”
The man with the dishrag on his head smiles and nods slightly. He has several teeth missing. The woman he was with has selected her salad. As per our instructions she and I are directed to go to the very front of the line — to the cash register. I stop to get a bottle of water and allow her to go in front of me. She hands the cashier a credit card.
“This is for the salad and that man’s cheese sandwich,” she says, pointing him out.
The man who was yelling from behind the counter brings the large, warm, perfectly grilled cheese sandwich to the woman paying for it.
“Is this yours?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says, pointing to the man she was with. “It’s for him.”
The man behind the counter wraps it, puts it into a bag, reaches past her and hands it to the man she was with. He grabs it, and in an odd exchange thanks her, then flees the line as if he had just stolen something. They swipe her credit card, and she plucks a fork from the display near the register.
“That was very cool,” I say to her, “very cool indeed.”
“I figure if I can afford this, I can afford to do that,” she said.
“Still, it is very nice to see,” I offer.
“I look to see what I can do,” she tells me. “This, I can do. No big deal.”
I made the train and chalked it up to having witnessed a simple, random act of kindness. But it got me thinking.
A random act of kindness, a phrase that grew out of the lead quote by author Anne Herbert, was a concept that captured our collective awareness. What interested me about this kindness was that the woman was obviously searching for ways to make a difference. She didn’t wait until she was panhandled — she stepped up, noticed where kindness was needed, and did something about it. This means it wasn’t so random. She was poised to be kind.
It prompted me to wonder what we know about this sort of thing. An interesting study out of Japan published in the Journal of Happiness Studies in 2006 (which included a co-authorship with Barbara Fredrickson, one of the leading authors in the field of positive psychology) showed that if you are a happy person you are more likely to recognize kindness and be kind. But what was really interesting was that they found you became even more kind and grateful if you counted the number of times you were kind in a day.
The researchers asked participants to become more aware of their own kind behavior toward other people every day for one week. Those taking part kept track of every kindness they performed and gave a tally at the end of the day. The result? Happy people. If you count the kindness you do for others you become more kind and grateful.
As if that weren’t good enough to start you looking for good things to do, consider the work of another researcher, psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who found that watching acts of kindness created physical sensations such as a warm, pleasant, or tingling feeling, and that people who watched compassionate and kind acts wanted to help others and become better people themselves.
Could it be that simple?
Could it be that all we have to do is count how often we are kind and we’ll feel better and so will those who watch us?
I’m going to start counting right now.
And if you would like to get involved with making your kindness not-so-random check out the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, the United States delegate to the World Kindness Movement.
Oh, and about the young woman? She was wrong. What she did was a big deal. It did something good for him, for her, for me, and for passersbys coming through New York City.
And now, maybe, for you, too.