The Unintended Consequences of Random Acts of Kindness

My 91-year-old Mom has an old green bomber jacket she wears for quick trips to the store.  The color is scuffed off of the elbows, and the knit cuffs and waist are pilled. The jacket isn’t good enough to wear to church, but it’s too good to throw away. And she likes it, or at least she did until the other day.

She was checking out at the grocery store and the clerk had bagged two small sacks, when Mom realized she didn’t have much cash with her. Even though Mom had several credit cards in her wallet, she didn’t think to use one of them—to Mom, grocery shopping is a cash operation. Flustered, she told the clerk to put back one of the bags. She didn’t have the money for both.

As she was walking out, the woman who’d been standing behind Mom in the checkout line caught up with her and handed Mom the second bag of groceries. This generous middle-aged stranger had paid for them. Mom managed to thank the woman, but she was mortified.

Mom’s convinced that the well-intentioned stranger saw an old woman wearing a ratty coat and concluded that Mom couldn’t afford to buy groceries. Mom has a comfortable income, so the idea that she might seem in need of charity was profoundly embarrassing to her. Mom gives generously to charities—she’s accustomed to being the giver. She’s not supposed to be the receiver. She’s proud of being in good shape financially.

My sister and I suggested other possibilities: Maybe the stranger was just being nice—everyone’s had the experience of coming up short at the checkout. Maybe the stranger was just trying to spare Mom the hassle of a return trip to the store.  Maybe Mom reminded the woman of her own mother.

Mom was unmoved by our explanations. She doesn’t want anyone thinking she’s poor and feeling sorry for her. She’s shopping for a new winter coat she can wear to the store.

* * *

I had a similar experience when I was shopping at the farmer’s market. I was debating whether or not to buy my collie a smoked dog bone. I’d picked up and put back several bones while the vendor was selling me on the merits of his smoking process. I concluded that the bones might be too splintery for my dog and decided not to buy any.

I felt a little bad about wasting the vendor’s time, so I stupidly said I didn’t have that much money with me, and the dog didn’t really need the bone. I wanted to move on and figured the vendor couldn’t argue with that explanation. But another shopper overheard the conversation and insisted on buying the $2 bone for me. I tried to refuse, but she said she wanted to treat my dog. So I let her give me the bone. I didn’t want to squelch her generous impulse. Better to be gracious. I’d get over my embarrassment.

Those random acts of kindness—moments of pure generosity—had surprising consequences. Instead of being pleased and grateful, Mom and I felt stupid. Embarrassed to be seen as needy. Guilty that we’d contributed to the perception. We’d expected to be the givers, not the receivers.

However, when I’ve truly needed help—say when a stranger helps me jump a dead battery—I am grateful and delighted that the world has such good-hearted people in it.

I still like the idea of random acts of kindness and want to be more open and accepting of what the world sends my way.

cosmic smooch

cosmic smooch

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Screen shot 2012-12-04 at 9.32.58 PM Here’s what I imagined: happy kids on Christmas morning, delighted to find some of the gifts they wanted. That vision helped me decide we’d sponsor a family for Christmas. As I got further into the process, it began to feel a lot less simple.

My husband and I are comfortably middle class. We have worked hard, but we have also been lucky—an accident of birth placed us in loving, hardworking families who taught us their work ethic and helped us get college degrees. We’re also healthy, again the luck of the draw, not something we can take credit for. So as I consider the single mother and three children we are sponsoring, I think: “It could have been me.” It seems only right to help them.

But I wonder about her. Was it hard for her to sign up to be sponsored? Did it hurt her pride? If it did, I suspect she set aside her feelings so her kids could have a Christmas more like other people do. Parents do that. I would.

I also wonder how Christmas celebrations in the U.S. got to be so excessive. Now, because we make such a big deal out of Christmas, the absence of gifts is conspicuous. Children who don’t get any gifts feel left out, and maybe, unloved. After all, kids just want to have fun and fit in with their friends and classmates. The mother who can’t provide a bunch of stuff has to feel bad, too—ashamed or alienated. Or maybe she gets tired of everyone else having nice things except her. I can only speculate about her life and guess at her feelings.

But I do hope that she will feel a little less alone, knowing someone else cares about her and her family, even if it is in an awkward and necessarily flawed way.