This time of year many people are succumbing to the flu, a highly contagious disease that is hard to avoid if you spend much time in public. We even had a mild bout in our household, in spite of flu shots and living quietly in a rural area. But there are other contagious conditions to watch for as well that can happen anywhere, anytime. One such condition is kindness.
I was exposed to kindness a few days ago. It happened on Facebook. A friend, someone I know from high school days, posted that she’d given dog food and all the cash she had to a homeless man and his dog. The retelling had an “I can’t believe I did this” quality to it that made me think wow, this woman is in the throes of something major. She’d clearly been overwhelmed by a full-blown pang of kindness.
A little while later I was reading my daily installment of Altruism (Matthieu Ricard) and the diagnosis was confirmed. Joan (I’ll call her that, because that’s her name) was in the grip of altruism, selflessly lessening the suffering of a stranger and his dog because she felt the overwhelming urge to do so. Chances are, anyone who observed her performing this act of kindness was infected. Was there an outbreak of kindness, right there in the Safeway parking lot? Perhaps I’ll read about it in next week’s police log.
I have a pretty strong constitution when it comes to contagious diseases, but merely reading about Joan’s experience gave me the kindness bug. I was walking in downtown Walla Walla this Tuesday and noticed a woman standing across the street, bundled up against the 22-degree air. She held a cardboard sign, clumsily lettered “Mentally Disabled Please Help.” The woman bowed to every passing car. No one stopped. I’d just spent my last bills on a watch battery. Heaving an inward shrug of regret, I continued to my car. But then I remembered. The coin purse in my bag usually had something in it. With a hand full of silver I turned around and crossed the street. It’s not much but it’s all I have with me and you’re welcome to it. She dropped the coins into her baggy pants pocket, bowed, and wished me happy Valentine’s Day.
The rush of good feeling I experienced, one of the most serious side-effects of kindness, was heady. Had anyone driving by noticed the exchange and been infected? According to Matthieu Ricard, acts of kindness to people, animals and the environment are indeed contagious, as are acts of cruelty. Therefore, caution is advised. All of us are connected and every act of kindness or cruelty has an effect beyond the parties directly involved. With a hopped-up news cycle and social media running rampant, we are more susceptible than ever to kind and cruel influences. They haven’t invented a vaccine to fight cruelty or even indifference, which can lead to the same result, so use your noodle. When you lift up another, even in a small way, we all rise.