In praise of bright words

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.

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  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I saw a news story about those college guys some time ago. I got quite a kick out of it.

  2. “How little it takes to turn a person’s day around. Why don’t we do it more?”

    Isn’t this the truth. I need to work on this more for sure. It often comes down to “the little things” that make all the difference in the world.

    Where have I read it is by small and simple things great things come to pass?

  3. reader Rachel says:

    Just reading this post made me feel better today. Thank you.

  4. You Evilution peddling tool of Satan, you…

  5. BJ Slocum says:

    To quote Confucious, “A bit of fragrance clings to the hand of him who gives flowers.” No doubt the girls ran a little better too that day.

  6. Doctrine & Covenants 108:7 “Therefore, strengthen your brethren in all your conversation, in all your prayers, in all your exhortations, and in all your doings.”

    One of my favorite scriptures.

  7. It is! It’s the truth! It’s so simple, yet it matter so much. Thanks Steven. Have I told you how much I admire you? And genuinely enjoy you and your comments? Well, I do.

  8. merrybits says:

    Mother Theresa said: “We cannot do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”

  9. Perhaps instances of altruism throughout the animal kingdom is a form of giving compliments…outside our species? But I agree, we as humans have the opportunity to compliment without the expectation of gaining anything in return…unless you were fishing for compliments in return Steve? :)

  10. You are a purveyor of beauty. Thank you.

  11. Tracy the feeling is absolutely mutual. Thank you.

    KarenF, of course I’m fishing for compliments! I was hoping you would form two lines and cheer me as I ran through.

  12. Great post, SteveP. You are one blogger that I can rely upon.

    Unfortunately, comments sometimes made to essays in the Bloggernacle world are insensitive to the emotional states of mutual understanding. I hope (and I am convinced) that this negativity is more a reflection of blog culture and NOT of the Mormon culture in general. I do believe much language in the Bloggernacle could use an upgrade — a little big more inspired by the “Good Samaritan.”

  13. I try to do this all the time…..and often succeed. I suppose it’s a gift to be able to make that connection with others, just looking at the glum checker in the store and tuning in to her mood, acknowledging her as a human being can brighten a day.

    I call it having seeing eyes. So often we look at each other, but don’t see each other. When I recognize that another person actually sees me, I’m lifted.

  14. Not to make this all mercenary, but it can be good management, too. A couple of times a year, one of the owners of our company will send out a message to everyone pointing out accomplishments or achievements or compliments by customers for some of us in the trenches. Those little occasional notes are one reason I feel so loyal toward the company. It sounds trite, but “semi-annual profit sharing bonus day” is a close second behind “Jeff appreciates my hard work and here’s why day” for making me feel like what I does matters and is worthwhile.

  15. Thank you, Steve. I wasn’t willing to acknowledge yesterday that I needed this, but it *is* just what I need.

  16. This was such a beautiful testament and really warmed my heart today. Thank you so much!

  17. While my husband and sons hiked one day this week in Glacier, I relaxed on the outside deck of a hotel beside a beautiful lake. I had things to do and enjoyed my one day of not hiking.

    I quietly observed other people coming and going on the deck as I read a book or wrote notes. After an hour or more, a very nice lady started speaking to me–just little comments now and then. She was concerned about me. She helped move my chair out of the sun. After a time, she offered to do other things for me–even invited me to go on boat tour with her family group. (I didn’t go since my hikers might soon return).

    I marvelled that these people from Michigan even noticed me. I did nothing to warrant any kindness from these strangers. Since coming home, I haven’t been able to get them out of my mind. I can’t tell them how much it meant to me that they tried to include me. I can’t thank Marie, Mary Jo, and Roland for their kindness. I’ll never in my life see them again. But I am determined to do the same for others. It will be my thanks to them.

  18. This made me smile. Thanks.

  19. I think it is important to pay attention that not all compliments be directed at appearance. When compliments become all about weight, hair, clothes, etc. we become accomplices with the media in disporportionately equating success with appearance. A better compliment would focus on who we are and what we do well.

  20. Years ago in a YSA ward, there was a list of “rules” posted on the kitchen cupboards in the Institute building. Things like “If you turn it on, turn it off” and “If you take it out, put it back.” But the last one was “If it will brighten somebody’s day, say it.” That one stuck with me. The effect on my relationships with others, when I remember to follow that simple dictum, has been striking.

    @Wendy, I agree that compliments should also be about things besides appearance, but I imagine for those frat boys it would have been hard to find other compliments for strangers passing on the street.

  21. What an excellent post! Immediately after reading it I printed it out, wanting to place the copy of this post in my bag to read when I feel discouraged.

    These are the things that I feel make a person truly happy. Something simple, momentarily connecting us in such a way that only the best of feelings can be felt.

    Excellent, excellent post!

  22. Thanks for a great post. It definitely brightened my day.

    My daughter has a gift for brightening people’s day too. She is three and she gives amazing hugs, even to people that she just meets. And if she gets to know you a little she will include an “I love you” when she gives the hug. It can make even the saddest person happy!

  23. Thanks for the reminder. It is too easy to forget this truth.

  24. I just wanted to say I thought about this story while I was out shopping yesterday (which I hate), and it made me smile and my day go better. So thanks for sharing.

  25. Random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty – I love it.

  26. Thank you, Steve. I appreciate deeply anything that makes us stop and consider the impact of little things that aren’t so little – right down to the words we use when we communicate with each other.

  27. This may be too late to share, but this article made me think of this post and so I decided to share it.

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