This week I give away stuff… randomly.
Have you been ROAK’d yet? I know four people who have in the past fortnight. My friend Kerrie was walking to the servo to buy toilet paper and a woman she didn’t know handed her a bunch of jonquils. Just like that. A reader on my blog wrote to tell me some guy in front of her in the cafe queue paid for her coffee last week. Another two had their parking meter topped up by a stranger. In all but one case, they were handed a little note or card that informed them they were recipients of a Random Act of Kindness and that encouraged them to do the same to someone else. To pay it forward.
Americans are all over this odd little practice of guerilla dumping niceness on random strangers. Oprah has her Kindness Chain project. Her fans are invited to do a kind deed and write it down in a little journal that has their name and address on it and a request for the journal to be returned when full. They then invite the receiver of their RAOK to pass on the love – and the journal – to others.
In Line Behind Me is a Washington-based blog dedicated to people who’ve been shouted coffees by strangers. They’re slipped a card inviting them to post a heart-warming story about the RAOK on said blog. The “shouter” can then log on and read about their amazing altruism the next day. Which, I suppose, means it’s really a blog dedicated to people who want to read about themselves on blogs.
If you catch a whiff of cynicism it’s possibly because big business have latched on and are flogging the sentiment. A certain hotel chain charge their staff with committing such acts on unsuspecting guests – the “Gold Passport” ones, that is. And a Canadian bank recently handed out 20,000 $10 notes to strangers (aka potential life-long, fee-paying customers). Which is a bit like a flash-mob Tai Chi event being sponsored by Pfizer.
Indeed, as Zeitgeist tracker Trendwatching.com says, RAOKs are now a corporate status symbol.
It’s easy to be cynical. So let’s challenge ourselves otherwise. Because at the core of the movement is a genuine desire to connect with kindness. Kindness, I believe, is one of those human traits that don’t always come naturally, and that we like to be forced into practicing because ultimately we know they enrich the human experience and further us along the evolutionary schlep. Generosity, charity, monogamy…they distinguish us humans from, say, a llama. In this light, RAOK cards are helpful prods to tug us beyond our selfish, survivalist tendencies and remind us of our extraordinary humanity.
So this week I played it forward a little. I started by redeeming a beauty spa gift voucher I’d been given. Outside the spa I gave bottles of lavender oil to the first three people I saw. Then I cashed a $520 cheque for a commission (that I don’t think I deserved) and donated it to A Start In Life, which, for $10 a week, sponsors a disadvantaged Australian kid for a year at school. Then I took things up a notch and ordered a bunch of “kindness cards” from WakeUpSydney, a outfit that exists purely to help others help others. I slipped the cards, which invite the “play it forward” concept, into new books and I’d been given (I get sent dozens for review for this column) and handed them out to people in my suburb.
It goes without saying… I felt like a legend. It felt deliriously good to be The Generous Person. Indeed every happiness study confirms that giving to others is the number one way to get a happy hit. A University of British Columbia study last month went as far as saying that not giving makes us sick.
At one point I contemplated leaving the books on park benches, so that my RAOK was wholly altruistic and anonymous and, therefore, not about satiating my ego. But that seemed kind of creepy (the park bench bit). And, really, giving kindly isn’t totally about ego. The happy hit comes from not thinking about oneself for a minute, and dropping the miserable “holding on” to things that “belong to me” that we all live by when we’re not careful. What a bloody relief! It’s also about seeing the person’s surprise and look of “touchedness”. And being touched by that.
As I say, kindness reminds us of our humanity.
* Can I really urge everyone to think about donating $10 a week to A Start In Life!? 1 in 10 kids in Australia are living in poverty. The program works like one of those sponsor a kid in Africa. You get sent details of the “little Aussie” you’re sponsoring…except it works closer to home. Donate here.
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