I was not excited about running today. For various reasons, I did not fall asleep last night until about 5:00 am. I was up at eight and the sun was already warming things up. Too much for my tastes. It was not hot yet, but I relish running in the cool of the dawn—62 F (~17 C) is perfect for me—and it was already too late for that. So feeling a little glum, I started wearily up the canal access road near my home. This was not going to be a good run.
As if in confirmation of my presentiment, there on the dirt road standing like a herd of springboks was a tight cluster of about twenty-five chattering female high school track team members entirely blocking my way. Ack. Just what I needed. Now I would have to stop and walk and weave and dance my way through that mass. Annoying. Suddenly, one of them saw me coming and she alerted her comrades and instantly they formed a two-sided channel of bodies through which I could pass. As I entered the runway they began cheering and clapping. My arms flew spontaneously into the air like someone crossing the finishing line of a race and I started pumping my fists in the air like a champion. And I felt like one. I was smiling ear to ear and they were laughing. My pace quickened. My stride lengthened. The rest of my run I felt happy. What a simple thing, yet it changed everything about how my day unfolded. Bless you runners where ever you are.
It is funny how little kindnesses like this elicit such joy. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy draws out in her book Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding how attuned humans are to one another’s emotional states. She points out that one of the most telling aspects marking human uniqueness from other species is our ability to attend to one another’s needs and respond kindly—regardless of kinship ties. She invites the reader to imagine an airplane full of our nearest relatives the chimps, which she describes as a fête of bloody attacks, biting retaliations and dismembering chaos. That we can all board a plane, be civil, and put up with each other in such cramped conditions for several hours is an act of unparalleled tolerance in the animal kingdom.
Because we are so wired to read each other’s reaction to our presence, little acts of acknowledgement and kindness carry emotional heft. The cheers of the track team really and truly brightened my mood.
I’ve noticed how little things go a long way. When someone complements a lesson I’ve given, smiles if I offer a chair, or waves if I’ve let them into traffic, the world’s shine glows a little brighter. On the news the other day was the story of a couple of college frat boys who made it a habit to stand on a certain city street and complement the people going by. The foot traffic was not so heavy that people could see what the young men were doing as they approached them. The complements were genuine. No sarcasm. They gave simply stated expressions of appreciation about some aspect of the person. Things like:
‘Your hair looks beautiful today.’
‘I love your confidence, it makes me feel bolder.’
‘What a striking dress! You have excellent taste in clothes.’
‘Your shined shoes speak well of the care you take of yourself.’
The fascinating thing was they always found something authentic and real to complement the person on. The effect was dazzling. The people walking by would typically seem momentarily surprised and then bust out in a delighted grin. A reporter stationed down the street captured some of the people. To a person, their mood had been brightened, their day made better, and they were refreshed by the small kindness.
How little it takes to turn a person’s day around. Why don’t we do it more? Go on give it a try. Make someone’s day.