I ended my last blog of 2012 with the link to Ann Curry’s 26 Acts of Kindness Challenge. During the 8 hour car ride that kicked off our Christmas road trip, I introduced the idea to the girls. Well, Emma, anyway. Phoebe was too busy licking the dog while singing Frosty the Snowman
over and over and over. But Emma was intrigued.
“Wait, so I don’t really get WHY the act needs to be RANDOM. What if I wanted to do something nice for someone I know? Or someone who clearly needs help? Then it wouldn’t be RANDOM.” Just call her Lady Literal.
“Right….well, the randomness might just refer to the fact that you don’t expect anything in return.” I said.
“Well, OBVIOUSLY, Mom. That’s what CHRISTMAS is all ABOUT.”
I decided “ignore daughter’s exasperated eye roll” was my first act of kindness.
We took a break somewhere in Connecticut for a bathroom-food break at McDonalds. As Phil placed the order, I tried to think of an act of kindness that would serve as a good example for the girls.
Turns out I didn’t need to.
“Someone came in a while ago and paid for 26 Happy Meals.”
I love when God lobs me a nice, underhanded pitch, just begging me to hit it out of the park. It’s like He’s saying, “Ok? This is how you do it. You get it now?”
For the next week, while visiting family in PA and NJ, we tried to follow in the footsteps of our Big Mac Benefactor: We over-tipped cab drivers, gave to the local food bank, and picked up trash.
We had fun with these gestures, but I felt like our small kindnesses were not enough. I mean, shouldn’t we be donating a kidney or something? I probably shouldn’t be allowed to participate in anything that involves the word “Challenge.”
On Christmas Day, we planned to deliver a Box of Joe and Munchkins to the local police department. As we prepared to leave, my sister walked in the door.
“Where were you?” I asked.
“Oh, I just delivered donuts and coffee to the FP Police Department….spreading some holiday cheer!”
“WHAT?! THAT’S WHAT WE WERE SUPPOSED TO DO!” I said a bit too aggressively. Leave it to my sister and I to make benevolence a competitive sport.
“Oh….well while don’t you try the Fire Department, or the First Aid Squad?”
“Yeah, ok”, I grumbled.
“Hmmm. Maybe everyone is just on call today,” Phil offered.
“Ok, let’s try the Fire Department.”
I was happy that the dedicated civic volunteers were home with their families, but I was beginning to see barriers. Emma, on the other hand, saw opportunity: “So if no one wants the Munchkins…”
I saw where this was going.
“DON’T EAT THEM! SOMEONE WANTS THEM! WE WILL FIND OUR PERSON!”
I took a deep breath and prayed silently: “God please help us find our person before we binge on donuts.”
“I got it!” Phil announced. “How about that home for the disabled near your parents’ house?”
I was silent for a moment. The Cheshire Home, a facility for physically disabled younger adults, is a mere .5 mile from the house where I grew up. As a kid, I would visit to sing Christmas carols or deliver Girl Scout Cookies….and it made me really sad. And a little scared.
I remember feeling startled awake by how much shit some people have to deal with, and humbled by how little control we have over it. As a sheltered kid, I lacked the courage to look suffering square in the eye. I didn’t want to admit that it could just as easily be me….which would then lead to the guilt of it NOT being me.
So I decided to replace my guilt with some gratitude. Anne Lamott writes, “Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means you are willing to stop being such a jerk.”
I was willing to stop being a jerk.
I turned to Phil: “Great idea, let’s do it.”
After a few minutes of knocking, a nurse finally answered the door. Turns out there was only one resident remaining for Christmas, a man named Steve. He was gracious and welcoming. We talked about Boston, where Steve’s sister lives, and the Red Sox. Emma told him that Santa bought her tickets to see Annie on Broadway; he told us which subway to take from Penn Station.
After we said our goodbyes and got back in the car, Emma said, “Steve is really nice, we should tell Aunt Mo to go visit him since she lives so close.”
Not only did Emma tell Aunt Mo to “stop by and see Steve;” my sister actually did it. While out for a walk earlier this week, she saw him sitting outside and introduced herself as the aunt to the “little girl with the donuts.”
“Emma!” he exclaimed. “How did she like Annie?”
They chatted for a few minutes, and as they parted ways Steve said, “Hey, tell Emma her visit was the best part of my Christmas. It was just what I needed that day.”
Maybe the truest acts of kindness are not necessarily the grandest gestures, but the ones that feel awkward or uncomfortable to give. The ones you don’t REALLY want to do, because they make you feel vulnerable and helpless. The one’s that make you think, “but really, what difference could I possibly make?”
But you never know: that next time you hold a door for a stranger, or mail your crazy aunt a hand-written note, or offer to babysit a neighbor’s kid for a few hours….
It could be just what they needed that day.