It’s the 1970s. A 30-something man makes his way across the Golden Gate Bridge. He’s passed by pedestrians and cyclists, and steps around tourists taking pictures of Alcatraz, Angel Island, and the channel of water below that runs between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. He gazes up at the reddish-orange towers soaring above, and then climbs over the bridge’s four-foot safety railing. He steps out onto a 32-inch wide beam known as “the chord,” pauses, takes one last long look out at the bay, and then jumps. His body plummets 220 feet and violently hits the water at 75 mph. The impact breaks his ribs, snaps his vertebrae, and pulverizes his internal organs and brain. The Coast Guard soon arrives to recover his limp, lifeless body.
When the medical examiner later located and searched the jumper’s sparse apartment, he found a note the man had written and left on his bureau. It read:
“I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.”
What Good Shall I Do This Day?
Benjamin Franklin was a moral pragmatist who had little patience for theology and preaching that didn’t encourage a man to become an upstanding citizen and do some good in the world. As he couldn’t find a sect he felt sufficiently espoused these pragmatic ideals, he eschewed church attendance and came up with his own program of self-improvement. Franklin set out to live a set of 13 virtues, a challenge designed to push himself to become as morally perfect as possible. Each week he picked one of the virtues to concentrate on and kept track of his failures in a notebook dedicated to that purpose.
Of the 13 virtues, Franklin found it most difficult to implement the principle of Order into his life. As an aid in doing so, he created a daily schedule for himself:
To begin his day on the right foot, not only in regards to Order, but living virtuously in general, he would ask himself this question:
What good shall I do this day?
Reflecting on this question helped him think about what opportunities for serving his fellow man might arise during the day.
In the evening, he would return to the question by asking himself: “What good have I done today?” He examined how he had spent his hours and whether he had done the good deeds he had planned on doing, as well as taken action when unforeseen opportunities to serve others had arisen.
In his virtue notebook, Franklin also inscribed a prayer that helped him remember the purpose of this exercise:
“O powerful Goodness! Bountiful Father! Merciful Guide! Increase in me that wisdom which discovers my truest interest. Strengthen my resolutions to perform what that wisdom dictates. Accept my kind offices to thy other children as the only return in my power for thy continual favors to me.”
But What Good Can I Do?
“Loving-kindness is the better part of goodness. It lends grace to the sterner qualities of which this consists and makes it a little less difficult to practice those minor virtues of self-control and self-restraint, patience, discipline and tolerance, which are the passive and not very exhilarating elements of goodness. Goodness is the only value that seems in this world of appearances to have any claim to be an end in itself. Virtue is its own reward.” -W. Somerset Maugham
Many of us want to be like Franklin and do good in our lives. But what does doing good even mean?
74% of Millenials believe they can make a difference in the world. But if pressed, most aren’t sure what that difference will entail.
I was talking to a 20-something friend of mine the other day, and he said, “I feel everyone in my generation wants to change the world, but if you ask them how, nobody knows. They have this restless urge to do something important, but all they ever actually do is buy products designed to ‘build awareness’ or tweet out a certain hashtag to show their support for some cause.”
It’s great to have big, idealistic plans to build wells in Africa or change the whole political process. But oftentimes we only associate doing good with doing something big, and since we don’t know how to get started on a huge project, we end up doing….nothing at all.
Might I suggest we aim simultaneously lower and higher?
Society has any number of pressing needs that are crying out to be tackled. But there’s a need that everyone can start addressing immediately — no experience or Kickstarter campaign required: regularly showing more human kindness.
I know, I know. Talking about kindness can seem cheesy. It isn’t cool. Doesn’t have much currency in our cynical age. Kindness doesn’t scream “manly” either. But I truly believe that helping our brothers and sisters along the way is what this life’s journey is all about, for men and women alike. At the same time, this service is the surest path to finding our own happiness.
Showing kindness doesn’t have to involve Mother Theresa-like dedication. It’s the small things that often not only make the most difference, but also most test our character.
Last year, the writer George Saunders gave a commencement address on the subject of kindness to the graduates of Syracuse University. In the speech, he recalls some of the bigger mistakes and mishaps of his life, and notes that despite their negative consequences, he regrets none of them. Instead, it is a small moment from his youth, a foible of omission rather than commission, that still niggles at him:
“In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”
Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.
End of story.
Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
But still. It bothers me. So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”
After Saunders gave his address, he said that many people came up to him to share their regret over a very similar episode – a lonely classmate they thought about befriending, but didn’t.
I have the very same regret myself. There was a girl in my high school – new, very shy, not as affluent as the other students. Often when I would come out of my last class before lunch and start heading over towards the cafeteria, I would see her sitting alone, eating her lunch in an empty part of the building. Each time I saw her, I would think about inviting her to eat lunch at my table. But what would my friends think? And maybe it would be weird to try to talk to her. So I did nothing. And I still think about her sometimes. The things we regret most in life surely are our failures of kindness.
You don’t still need to be in school to find opportunities for doing good. Every day there are so many little things you can do to ease another’s burden just a bit.
Awhile back I came across a really uplifting thread on Reddit (I know, it happens occasionally). The question posed was, “How did a non-sexual, random encounter with a complete stranger, completely change your life?” I’d like to share just a few of the responses that show the power of small acts of kindness:
“6 years ago my wife and I had just had our first child. He was born through emergency c-section because he wasn’t responding to labor. He went straight to the neonatal intensive care unit due to rapid breathing problems. My wife and I were only allowed to see him at certain times of the day after we had spent 20 minutes scrubbing up. We were allowed to feed him but not hold him. After 3 days of staying at the hospital we were extremely tired, frustrated, scared, and unsure of what would happen next. The doctor gave my wife a Rx and I volunteered to head out and pick it up. I hadn’t showered in a couple days and I imagine I looked somewhat like a zombie.
I walked in to the nearest drug store and gave the clerk at the pharmacy the paperwork. He was a 20-something guy working the night shift. He must have noticed I was a little down and he asked how things were going. I told him that we had just had our first son but that there were complications and that he was in the NICU. He asked my son’s name and I told him. He repeated the name back to me and said thoughtfully, “That’s a strong name, sounds like a Heisman trophy winner…I’m sure he’s gonna be just fine.” He smiled and I teared up. He handed me the medicine and told me to make sure I got some rest and I thanked him and went back to the hospital to stay with my wife. 2 days later on Christmas Day we went home as a family with a healthy baby. It may have not changed my life but I will never forget the kind words he spoke…it gave me a glimmer of hope in the middle of a hard circumstance. Never underestimate the power of a kind word to a stranger.”
“I was having a bad day and was traveling by Greyhound from my friend’s city back to mine. I had to transfer and ended up seated next to a guy with a laptop. I don’t know if he could tell that I was upset or not, but he asked me if I wanted to watch something with him. We ended up sharing headphones and watching Where the Wild Things Are. I was pretty shy back then but if I could meet him again today I would thank him for cheering me up.
I know it’s not a life-changing story, but it’s a little thing that made a big difference back then.”
“When I first started trying to run, I couldn’t even jog a mile. I could barely jog a quarter mile.
One day, I was jogging on a very popular jogging trail near my campus and was basically dragging my feet, sweating like a pig, and wheezing like crazy. Of course the seasoned runners pass me by without so much of a glance but I always remembered this one old man who slowed down to tell me,
“Keep it up, you’re almost there!”
His smile and encouragement is something I remember now every time I’m struggling during a workout. Fast forward a few years and I am much healthier and fitter. One of my favorite things to do is offer kind words of encouragement to strangers I see at the gym or anyone struggling on the jogging path. Exercise is easy – it’s the motivation that’s hard.”
Stepping out of your comfort zone to show another person a bit of human kindness can be surprisingly challenging. But the effort it takes to swallow our shyness to talk to another, and/or to put aside our impatience to spend some extra time with someone who looks in need of comfort can end up meaning the world to them. Doing good isn’t limited to helping strangers, either. It can mean choosing to greet your children with warmth when you come through the door despite your hard day or staying up late to help your stressed girlfriend study for a test.
Something I’ve come to understand quite profoundly as I’ve grown older is that folks who are struggling – strangers and friends alike – frequently do not advertise their pain. I cannot count the times I’ve thought another person had it all together – the perfect job, the perfect family, the perfect life – only to have them later reveal some incredibly painful death, disease, or crisis they were grappling with. Every man really is fighting a hard battle. Thus, kindness is something you shouldn’t reserve and only dole out when you see an acute need, but something you embody in your day-to-day life. Your inherent warmth may bring someone comfort without your ever knowing it.
Seeking to do good each day weaves rich threads of integrity into our life, so that when we reach the end of our mortal existence, we can be proud of the tapestry of our actions and have few regrets for the things we should have done, but didn’t.
One of my favorite old hymns is “Have I Done Any Good?” It was written in the latter part of the 19th century by Will L.Thompson, a member of the Churches of Christ, but its message cuts across religious lines. Singing and listening to it is a reminder to me of the path I want to take in life:
1. Have I done any good in the world today?
Have I helped anyone in need?
Have I cheered up the sad and made someone feel glad?
If not, I have failed indeed.
Has anyone’s burden been lighter today
Because I was willing to share?
Have the sick and the weary been helped on their way?
When they needed my help was I there?
2. There are chances for work all around just now,
Opportunities right in our way.
Do not let them pass by, saying, “Sometime I’ll try,”
But go and do something today.
‘Tis noble of man to work and to give;
Love’s labor has merit alone.
Only he who does something helps others to live.
To God each good work will be known.
Then wake up and do something more
Than dream of your mansion above.
Doing good is a pleasure, a joy beyond measure,
A blessing of duty and love.
It’s 2008 and 20-year-old Johnny Benjamin is standing on the edge of Waterloo Bridge in London. He’s lost in his own world of psychic pain, trying to figure out the right time to jump and end it all.
Then he hears a voice call to him. A voice that penetrates his bubble. Another 20-something, Neil Laybourn, very calmly says, “Please don’t do this, I’ve been where you are and you can get better. Let’s have a coffee and we can talk about this.” He begins asking Benjamin about himself, and the two discover they had grown up just 10 minutes from each other. After they chat for a bit, Benjamin climbs off the bridge.
Laybourn’s simple words saved his life.
“He reminded me of what people do every day so the normality of it was really inviting,” Benjamin later recalled. “His act of kindness changed my outlook on life.”
For his part, Laybourn doesn’t think of himself as a hero – it was just a matter of stepping up instead of turning his back:
“Maybe it was fate, it was easy to make a connection. There are people who would walk past and there are those who would have taken action. I am proud that I was in the crowd that took action.”
What good will you do this day?