Matthew Kear is a writer, photographer, musician, and a father. By trade, Matthew is an historic preservation planner in Atlanta. He writes for two blogs on heritage and preservation advocacy (rag and bone, in places lonely) and hosts a widely unknown Facebook page on living with depression, downUPLiving. He is passionate about finding beauty in everyday life, and for him, writing about life, feelings, and experiences is as important as the experiences themselves.
“And remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.” ~Scott Adams
The Dilbert Zone, DNRC: Newsletter Archive, “A Kind Word” (December 1995)
I was maybe 20 years old the day a woman approached me in a Publix parking lot in my home town of Gainesville, Florida. Her clothing was unmistakably that of the Hare Krishna, which have had a strong presence in the area most of my life. They operated the ever-popular, vegetarian “Krishna lunches” at the University of Florida and Santa Fe College campuses in town, for little or no charge, and handed out cookies and other treats with their religious flyers. These encounters were always pleasant, in my experience, but I (in the height of youthful ignorance) found their clothes and my limited understanding of their lifestyles peculiar; so I adopted a policy of polite avoidance. As I crossed the parking lot that day and noticed this woman, I intended to avert my eyes and avoid engagement. She held a stack of what I assumed to be religious flyers, which I certainly had no interest in at the time. So, armed with my ignorance and undoubtedly a need to get somewhere with undue haste ~ I encountered this woman, who, with the kindest expression, gently extended her hand; in it, to my surprise, was a small, colorful sticker bearing an Indian caricature of a smiley face and the word SMILE. Never one to refuse the command of a sticker, it did bring a smile to my face. I took it and thanked her, to which she responded in kind. Seconds later, I returned to my car with a new sticker and a kinder attitude ~ two gifts from a stranger I would never encounter again. Twelve years later, that sticker adorns the cover of a favorite notebook ~ the one in which I now recount the tale.
Flash forward, six years into the future… I was a graduate student at Cornell University, experiencing heightened struggles with depression, anxiety, and insecurity; old fears realized in new and vivid colors far from home. It is unfortunate that sometimes in life periods of great pride and achievement often coincide with great personal strife.
In my time on the hill, I frequented Olin Library on the Arts Quad. The path between it and Uris Library (home to Cornell’s famed “Harry Potter Library”) was a popular space for students to congregate, spending their lunch breaks socializing, buried face-deep in a book or lost in an iPod, smoking alongside no-smoking signs, or scribbling sidewalk-chalk ads for student barbershop quartet performances (oh, yes). In my almost daily strolls (a term, which here refers to stress-laden desperation rambles) through this hub of student activity, I would often see a young student, holding a small sign that read FREE HUGS. This simple act was part of much larger campaign of kindness, of which I was entirely ignorant at the time. It was puzzling, at first. I was one of the many described by campaign founder, Juan Mann, just looking through the girl. My inner monologue was busy pondering: Why? Is this a joke or some kind of study? I passed her, shielded by skepticism more times than I can recall.
Cornell is a wonderful institution and Ithaca, as the saying goes, is Gorges. Cornell is also an extremely demanding school, where pressures run high (along with depression rates). Ithaca is a place of truly remarkable communal warmth and solidarity; but it is set within a cold, dreary, and otherwise unsympathetic climate for most of the year. This combination took its toll on me and many others, in far more tragic ways.
While I struggled with my own inner turmoil, this girl offered a moment of hope and compassion in the form of a simple gesture: a hug. I never hugged her; in part, over fear of judgment from passing classmates and even the possibility a moment of compassion might publicly release a floodgate of repressed emotion that I was struggling to contain. I should have hugged her, but insecurity got the better of me (as is so often the case). Despite not permitting myself to open up fully to that experience, simply witnessing her act of kindness had a lasting impact on me. And I am grateful to her. I guess you could say, in the end, she hugged me after all.
These experiences are unspectacular. Nobody was saved from emotional peril or imminent doom. No poor soul was pulled at the last second from the proverbial (or literal) ledge. Two simple gestures softened an otherwise hardened heart. While they seem entirely forgettable, the memories persist, softening my heart and influencing my actions to this day.
That is the lesson: never underestimate the power of a moment of kindness. It can have lasting impacts on the recipient, the giver, and even those who simply witness the act. I have tried to practice kindness and compassion in my life. I can only hope to have made similar impressions in the lives of others, who have similarly crossed my path. A few memories float to the surface like sharing an umbrella with a stranger waiting in the rain to buy tickets to a movie; gifting flowers to a young girl who couldn’t afford to send a small arrangement to her mother on her birthday; and offering a calming smile to a terrified dementia patient, letting her know that she is not alone in the world ~ that someone did see her.
There are no small acts; kindness is absolute. Once an act is performed, it can leave an indelible mark in a person’s life that continues to influence them as they grow and interact with others over the course of their lives. A stranger placed a sticker in my hand and at a difficult moment in my life, some 12 years later, I find myself staring at it and writing the words you now read. It inspires me still. The simplest act, even a smile, can be a light in a moment of utter darkness for someone. Acts of kindness can produce ripples that extend through the lives of those in their wake. Kindness is also infectious. An act of kindness can benefit a person in need and influence their treatment of others, and so on and so forth beyond measure. It’s like planting a seed; some end with that simple act. while others flourish into massive trees with extensive networks of roots and branches, living on for generations. So, live kindly and be on the lookout for opportunities in your own lives to plant a seed.