Saturday, March 20, 2010

Susan Day 7

TITLE: Chauffered person to meeting

Date: Feb. 15, 2010

Explanation of the act: A self-proclaimed “weather wimp” was going to have to miss our monthly meeting (see previous post), which had been postponed many times due to bad weather. She emailed the group saying the threat of snow would keep her home. The group decided to meet without her. I emailed her back, saying I’d come pick her up and take her to the meeting.

Event: I drove to her home and got her, drove us to the meeting, and then drove her home afterwards.

Reactions: One happy lady! She was thrilled to be able to attend, and had no qualms about going as long as she didn’t have to drive. It was good that she was able to make the meeting because she gave a report on something of great interest to the other group members.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat

Cost: zip

Time: an extra half hour, total

Susan's reflection on Project Nice

During the month that I was involved in Project Nice, I, myself, was the recipient of several random acts of kindness from strangers. These were connected to the major snowstorms we had that month. It seems like being snowed in brings out the best in people.

In one case, I was single-handedly trying to clear my 6-car driveway of thigh-deep snow when a woman I didn't know came by with her shovel and dug in to help. She ended up doing more of the shoveling than I did, because I was exhausted from shoveling off my deck and had slowed down considerably. I was surprised, touched, and exceedingly grateful; but I realized after she had left that, although we chatted while we worked, I didn't even know her last name to send her a thank you note.

After the next snowstorm (a few days later), I finished shoveling off my deck to find three boys cleaning my driveway. It turns out they were the woman's sons, and she had sent them over to help me. I offered them money when we were done, but to my surprise they all refused.

My thoughts immediately turned to what I could do to thank this family. I was a stranger to them, yet they went out of their way (they lived several streets over) to help me out on two occasions. I considered getting them a gift certificate to a restaurant or maybe baking them a cake or brownies. I asked a mutual acquaintance for help - she knew their last name, but not their address. I was about to search online for it when I remembered something that made me stop and just enjoy the benefits of this good deed without trying to repay it.

Many years ago I lived in a townhouse with my sister. We had started attending a small, informal church nearby. Two other attendees of this church, a middle-aged husband and wife, lived in our cul-de-sac. We knew them by sight, but that's about it.

One Sunday they were not at the service and the pastor asked us to pray for the husband, who had had a heart attack and was recuperating at home.

Several days later it snowed, and after we shoveled our driveway and steps we went over to this neighbor's house and dug out their car / driveway, too. It was fun; we were young and energetic and it felt good to help them out. There were no signs of life in the house - they hadn't even opened their door to see what was going on and we didn't see any faces in the windows. I think part of what we liked was thinking about the surprise on their faces when someone came out to shovel, only to find it already done. It was like we were leprechauns or fairies--magically doing good when no one was looking and not getting caught.

Many months later (I think it was summer by now), we were at a bible study one evening and the husband asked to share something with the group that had touched him. He told the story of how, when he was weak and sick that winter following open-heart surgery, he had looked out the window to see two angels shoveling his snow. It had meant a lot to him, and his eyes started to fill with tears. I was slightly embarrassed to be thanked in front of all the other people and called an angel, but thrilled that it had brought him so much joy - not only physical relief at not having to shovel, but happiness that someone cared enough to do it. We had thought our deed was anonymous, but it wasn't. All this time, he and his wife were harboring these warm feelings for that simple act of kindness we did.

But that's not where it ends.

Later that summer I noticed his wife on her hands and knees in front of our townhouse. It turned out she was weeding our garden. Your first reaction may be, "Aw, that's nice, you started a chain of people doing things for one another." Maybe I'm odd. (OK, I'm definitely odd.) I may be atypical, but that wasn't my reaction to seeing what she was doing. After my confusion, I realized she was "paying us back" for our kindness during the winter. I'm almost ashamed to say, it didn't feel wonderful. It felt like she was trying to even the score so they didn't owe us anything. It felt like being paid to do a good deed, which takes away the pleasure of doing it. If you're compensated for it, it's not really a selfless act anymore. Anyway, it took away some of the pleasure I had gotten from being that little leprechaun spreading magic when no one was looking (or so I thought).

I know that wasn't her intention - she was motivated out of gratitude. But my emotional response shocked me and I never forgot it.

Fast forward to this snowstorm. After being all set to do something nice for the family that helped me, I remembered that event from years ago and stopped. Other than my profuse verbal thanks at the time of the event, I didn't do anything to thank them. I let them savor the good feelings that come from helping out a stranger without being "compensating" for it.

What did I learn from that nice act years ago? I realized that part of the gift of doing a good deed for a stranger is the good feeling that you get about yourself. I realized that I had gotten at least as much happiness -- maybe more -- from doing the good deed as the stranger had gotten from receiving it. Could it be that the giver gets even more out of the act than the receiver?

I hope I did the right thing by not tracking down that helpful family after the snowstorm and doing something nice for them. What do you think?

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