i can vividly remember two distinct events in my life that reminded me—on a fundamental level—how good people can be. how optimism can trump negativity. how genuine acts of kindness can make you see that we’re not all crusty, self-serving assholes that roam the earth on an endless quest for personal gain. that sometimes, just sometimes, you can do things for the sole purpose of making other people happy.
the first instance happened when i was six years old. we went shopping at our neighborhood grocery store, pick-n-pay. as my parents meandered through the produce aisles, i went off to the bakery section to peruse the desserts. i was in awe: a magical snow white cake with seven dwarfs making their way merrily down a sprinkled path. giant cupcakes. chocolate frosted eclairs. glazed donuts. cookies for days. there i was, a little girl with eyes wide and nose pressed up against the glass, lost in reverie around these amazing delicacies…
and then i heard a voice speaking to me from behind the counter. i was too small to see who it was so i had to take a few steps back. “hi dear, well aren’t you cute,” said the sweet-faced lady in a white apron and tufts of blond hair peeking out of her hairnet.
back then, i was terribly shy so i just cracked a nervous smile.
“would you like to pick out a cookie?”
my heart started racing. i had my favorite patchwork lion purse (complete with yarn mane) strapped across my chest. it was fierce and fashionable, but much like now, there wasn’t any money it! so i froze.
“don’t worry dear. go ahead and pick one out.” her face was kind and reassuring. i scooted toward the glass case frantically scanning my options. as i got closer, my gaze settled in on the target. i lifted my little finger timidly toward the case and pointed at the giant, perfectly circular chocolate chip cookie.
she smiled. “that’s a great choice!” she pulled a piece of wax paper out, grabbed the cookie, and leaned over the counter to hand it to me. “there you go sweetheart. enjoy!” and that was it. i didn’t have to pay. she just gave me a cookie, showed me some kindness—and i walked away with an indelible memory. lesson #1: people can do good, not because they have to. not because they want anything in return. not because anyone is watching. just because.
flash forward to my first year out of college. i was living in chicago and, like every dutiful notre dame alumni, was making the trek to the golden dome for the first home game of the season. if you’ve ever made the drive, it’s short…but far from scenic. suffocating pollution in gary, indiana. annoying traffic on the highway that is perpertually under construction.
nonetheless, my roommate and i were excited to get back to our alma mater, old friends and, of course, the long-island-iced-tea-stained linebacker dance floor. we made our way out of the city and were cruising along toward the skyway. from the distance, we could see a backup of cars.
“great. traffic. this is taking away serious tailgating time. ” (nice to know i had my priorities in line…yeesh!...but i digress.) we inched our way to the toll booth at a snail’s pace, getting crustier by the second. i fumbled around for the $2.00 toll fee and pulled down the window. i extended my hand to give him the money.
instead of the typical, weathered toll operator scowl, he had a twinkle in his eye. “don’t worry about it ma’am.”
“the guy in front of you paid your toll.”
i was flabbergasted. it was such an unexpected, random act. we were elated…and inspired.
“here you go, sir.” i handed him the money. “pay it forward, baby!”
we exchanged cheshire cat grins and i drove away. lesson #2: it really does feel as good, if not exponentially better, to give than receive.
these little epiphanies are often taught, but rarely felt. in real life. tiny gestures—a 50 cent cookie, a $2.00 toll—that can have a tremendous impact on another human being.
the whole rest of the drive, i kept thinking: “who does that kind of thing?”
well, it’s the same kind of person that returned my wallet, everything intact, when i lost it on the train. and the friend that surprised me with an amazing bouquet of flowers the other day, just for simply being a friend.
it’s you and me. random acts. unspoken words, spoken. a pat on the back. a phone call. a small effort. a big thank you. a bit of affirmation. appreciation. an ear to listen. a shoulder to lean on. a reminder that a little good has a lot of power.
pay it forward, baby.