Could we learn to open our hearts and minds to become kinder, more empathetic people?
Look around you. Everyone is fighting their own personal battle, however big or small. Every day, we encounter people from all walks of life who need help: a tourist asking for directions, a woman crying, someone with a disability, or victims and refugees we see on the news. But how often we look the other way? Why do we judge others when they act like jerks, yet give ourselves a pass when we snap at a stranger on a stressful day? Why do we sometimes act cruel and selfish, even to those we love most? And why is it so hard to be kind even to ourselves?
It was right after 40 Days of Dating ended that Tim and I started asking ourselves these questions. We regretted the way we handled things and felt sorry for the way we treated each other. We kept coming back to one word: empathy. We view the world through the filter of our own ego and tastes, we help people only in situations we connect to, make assumptions about those we don't understand, and surround ourselves with others who share our same beliefs. But with a little effort, could we learn to open our hearts and minds to become kinder, more empathetic people? This was the foundation for the 12-step experiment we designed to confront our selfishness and apathy.
As a natural-born skeptic, I rolled my eyes when we originally thought of the idea. Did I really think that putting myself through 12 steps of "kindness" would do anything for anyone? Would confronting my apathy, faults, and fears really change me for the better? I had serious doubts.
That said, I've always tried to approach all of life as an experiment, and I was willing to try. So over the next 12 months, Tim and I went through each of these challenges, one month at a time. It's been a crazy journey: sometimes fun, often difficult and painful, with plenty of tears and laughter along the way. Here is a little preview:
Last year I walked down the street past a homeless man— something many New Yorkers do on a daily basis. I was with a friend from out of town who was shaken by the sight, and while I saw him out of the corner of my eye, I didn’t truly see him.
It was her startled reaction that made me absorb the fact that this man had been living on my block for the past year, and I had never given him money or asked how I could help him. I passed him every single day, and I’d somehow allowed myself to consistently ignore his presence as I'd buy my six-dollar latte, scroll through my Instagram feed, and read client emails. I had been selectively blind to the suffering in front of me.
I wasn’t always so apathetic, though. Growing up, I was deeply affected by almost everything I read or saw on the news. In high school, I remember watching movies about deforestation affecting the indigenous tribes in South America and donating my entire bank account to a charity. I remember reading about Columbine and being so emotional I couldn’t leave my bed for days. I volunteered, I read, I debated with people about social issues and politics. I even bought food for the homeless regularly during my first year in New York.
I have plenty of excuses used to ease my conscience: I’ll volunteer when the craziness at the office settles down, my schedule is so crazy. I’ll donate more once more of our mortgage is paid off and I feel financially secure again. But if I’m honest with myself, I’m actually far better off now — and more capable of giving — than I was in the past when I was far more generous.
Tim and I have realized that now is as good of a time as any to make a resolution to confront our selfishness. The goal is to lose these hard shells we've built for ourselves and attempt to build kindness back into our everyday lives — and not just as a way to make ourselves feel better.
This first step is about admitting our own apathy and lack of perspective toward those outside of our immediate social circles. Tim and I spent the entire day walking around New York City asking random strangers one simple question:
“You can help me by spreading my story.”
“How can you help me? That comes with a story. You see, I make these all in memory of my daughter. She would be 2 1/2 years old right now but she was killed at birth by my midwives. It was Thanksgiving weekend and the midwives didn’t want to work. They delayed me and there were mistakes and cover-ups and it ultimately led to my daughter being a still-born. I crochet now as my personal therapy. I am constantly making stuff to turn my pain into something pretty that makes people smile. Her memory lives on through the smiles. Her name was Violet Moon. How you can help me is by spreading my story.”
“I like helping other people, that’s what helps me. It's the smiles that keep me alive.”
“I like helping other people, that’s what helps me. I left home when I was 14, and I’ve been playing here for 15 years now. I stand in the park playing from my heart, and you either feel it or you don’t. But if you feel it, it probably does something for you, it makes you feel good. And what else could you want from the world but to feel good? That’s my purpose in life, to make others feel good. It’s a tradition. If you go back to traditional Africa, there were griots who have been doing this for others for the long time. It’s the smiles that keep me alive.”
“What do I need help with? Pigeons.”
“What I need help with is the infestation of the Village with the .001% wealthy.”
“What I need help with is the infestation of the Village with the .001% wealthy. New York is becoming a resort for rich people. The few people that are not rich here are just imported to do labor for the rich. The rents are insanely high, look at all the empty stores around us. No one can afford these prices except chain stores, which ruin the neighborhood. They are all the same everywhere. Now when people come to visit the Village they’re starting to see what they could see in their strip mall in Minnesota. I don’t know what the solution is.”
“No, there’s nothing we need help with, but you can take our picture.”
A lot of the people we spoke to didn't want to be photographed. For example, we met a woman who was recently kicked out of her home in the West Village, where she’d lived in all her life, because the building's being turned into luxury condos. She just wanted to be heard.
The next morning, I took the time to observe all the people who passed by me on my walk to work. I tried to imagine what was going on in their lives, and what they might be struggling with. This experiment reminded me that whether we're old or young, rich or poor, successful or struggling to make it, we all have our ups and downs. You really never know what someone is going through at any given moment. Some of the people we met who appeared happy were actually going through heartbreaking ordeals, and a few people who seemed well-off didn’t even have enough money for food.
This step has been a nice wake-up call to be more curious about strangers and more willing to lend an ear, because who knows? Maybe it will mean something to them, or maybe I can learn something from them. Maybe I can genuinely help.
So over the past weeks, I've been talking to strangers and keeping my eyes open for those in need. Many amazing experiences have come out of this, but my favorite one happened in a taxi, en route to JFK to catch a flight.
We were on the highway when I saw a man on the side of the street who appeared to be hitchhiking. He was flailing his arms and seemed extremely distressed, and at first, I looked the other way. I generally don’t stop for strangers in the middle of a highway.
But I decided to keep an open mind, considering everything I had learned from this first step, so I asked my cab driver to pull over. I rolled down the window and asked the man how I could help him. He told me he was going to JFK and his cab driver had an emergency and had left him on the side of the road. Going against all my normal instincts about picking up random strangers, especially ones that look potentially crazy, I told him he could ride with me. When he got in the car, he reached inside his coat pocket, and for a moment my heart skipped a beat. Was he pulling out a gun, was he going to rob me?
Instead, he pulled out a box which contained an engagement ring. He told me that I had just saved his life: he was on his way to Paris to propose to the love of his life. A few days ago he broke up with her, but he realized he was just scared of his strong feelings for her. He had an entire day of plans scheduled in Paris leading up to when he would propose, many of which were non-refundable. He said he had been standing on that road for a half an hour and no one had stopped for him, and his phone was dead. Thanks to me, he would just now make his flight on time.
We'd love for you to participate in this 12-step journey with us. Step one is all about honesty: admitting to apathy or selfishness, or your desire to become kinder and more aware. Start more conversations with people outside your social circles. Listen to people. Offer to help. Comment below or tag #12kindsofkindness on social media and let us know your stories. We'd love to hear them!
Feel free to use the artwork / quotes above to share your story on social, you can download them all on the 12 Kinds of Kindness Tumblr.