12 Kinds of Kindness - logo 12 Kinds of Kindness - handheld logo Eye

A 12-step experiment designed to open our hearts, eyes, and minds. Learn more
Image gallery
Step 01
Can I Help You? 

Can we gain any empathy or perspective by talking to strangers with different situations? We asked New Yorkers one very simple question: “How can we help you?”

Portrait

Step 01: Can I Help You? 

Part 1: Why Kindness?

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:

Overview

As a resolution, we created a series of 12 steps and practiced them for 12 months.
You'll find the first few steps more lighthearted, and as the journey continues, some will become more intense and deeply personal. Towards the end of the project, we’ll start to apply some of what we've learned and attempt to put kindness back out into the world. We hope you'll not only follow along, but participate in some of these steps yourselves. 

Part 2: I've Become The Worst Kind of Person

I had been selectively blind to the suffering in front of me.

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.

Recent comments

Dee Romesburg
May 11, 2016 15:48

I think of myself as a kind person, but you've made me see how insular I've become. Thank you for that.

VivienneA31
Mar 13, 2016 03:59

THANK YOU FOR PUTTING THIS PROJECT INTO THE WORLD ITS SO NEEDED.

Then eventually, I stopped. Moving to New York City hardened me, and I came to believe my small acts of generosity were meaningless in a world filled with so much need and pain. This city encourages you to move so fast, to be so ambitious and individualistic; how else can you make it here with high cost of living and fast pace of life? I guess it’s been easier to build myself a shell and focus only on myself and my own needs, rather than face the pain and suffering going on in the world around me every day.
Most days I walk to work at high speed, head down, scrolling through my email and social media accounts. I relax in the evenings by drinking overpriced cocktails and having nice dinners with my husband, sister, or a small select group of likeminded friends. I numb my mind before bed with a never-ending stream of Netflix, documentaries, and HBO shows carefully selected to complement to my liberal mindset.
I rarely take the time anymore to wander through the city, to meet new people, to challenge my existing mindset. And, I certainly haven’t gone out of my way to talk to or help strangers. While I do donate, it’s not nearly as much as I could or should. I even found myself emotionally numb when I heard of a suicide bombing on the news recently. I have to face it: I've become the worst kind of person. I'm privileged and apathetic, and I live a primarily self-centered life.
Can we make a resolution to confront our apathy and selfishness?

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: 

“How can I help you?”
Tim and I are not delusional. We know that there is no way we’d be able to help anyone in a deeply meaningful way in only one day. Instead, the point was to gather a small survey of what our fellow New Yorkers are struggling with, big or small, before we dove head first into the rest of our steps. Here are a few of the people we met:

“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 do I need help with? Pigeons. I don’t mind birds but the pigeon problem in this park has become crazy. The problem is one particular man that comes to the park every day and feeds the pigeons. All the pigeons in the park recognize him now and just wait for him. As soon as he enters the park and sits down, they all start to flock to him. So he has increased the pigeon numbers tremendously. I don’t understand what his story is. You might want to talk to him.”

“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. 


We also met a homeless man who only recently turned to the streets after his emphysema made him miss so many work days that he got fired. He wanted a blanket before it got too cold, so we gave him one. 

Then, we met a young skateboarder in the East Village who told us he was just released from jail and living on the streets. He needed help buying lunch for his girlfriend, so we bought him a sandwich. The list of people we were able to help goes on and on.

Part 3: Looking Out More

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. 

When we arrived he insisted on paying the cab fare. I saved this guy’s proposal, was touched by his story, and got a free cab ride? This whole kindness thing can be rewarding in more ways than one.

Part 4: Make Your Own Step

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.

Back to top