For Dalton Adams, the dinner hour was shaping up like every other night at In-N-Out Burger. The line of cars stretched from the drive-thru window and wound across the parking lot. Adams was serving hungry customers at the payment window, the usual routine—until the guy in the red car pulled up.
Adams smiled and said hello, reviewed the man’s order, then reached to take his money before sending him on to the next window, where he would receive his burger and fries. The man handed Adams the money for his food, but instead of speeding off, he asked, “How much is the order for the car behind me? I’d like to pay for it.”
Adams hesitated, unsure of how to respond. “How much is their order?” the man asked again. Adams told him, and the guy in the red car handed Adams the extra cash and drove off.
When Adams delivered the unexpected happy news to the minivan family that the man ahead of them had paid for their meal, they were as stunned as he had been. “What was that?” the driver asked, confused. But the kids in the backseat heard, and they were elated. “Let’s pay for the people behind us,” they said, giggling and peeking through the back window.
And so the game began. Car after car paid it forward until more than thirty minutes later the manager, noticing that the line stretching out to the street had slowed to a crawl, had to call it quits. “I hated to see it end,” Adams said. “It was fun to be part of something that made people so happy and showed how kind people can be.”
An Act of Compassion
People are paying it forward at drive-thru windows, movie theaters, and grocery stores all over the country. During a time when social media can be distinctly antisocial and casting stones is almost an automatic reaction, serial acts of kindness in a fast-food line can be a tangible reminder that, in spite of all the badness in the world, we can still be kind and compassionate and serve others.
Anyone walking into the main doors on the fourth floor of the Tanner Building is greeted by a gold bust of the building’s namesake, along with a simple quote from N. Eldon Tanner: Service is the rent we pay for living in this world of ours. Service and kindness are hallmarks of BYU Marriott alumni.
“When we have feelings of caring or love for other people, we feel better,” clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone, PhD, said in a Huffington Post interview.1 “We all think we want to be loved, but what actually feels good to us is feeling loving—and part of what makes us feel more love for other people is doing kind, compassionate things for them.” For those who like checklists, the same article notes that compassionate people often exhibit the following eight characteristics:
- find commonalities with others
- don’t put emphasis on money
- act on their empathy
- are kind to themselves
- teach others
- are mindful
- have high emotional intelligence
- express gratitude
If you find yourself deficient in any of these characteristics, don’t fret. According to a 2013 study by researchers at the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, we can actually learn to be more compassionate. Researchers concluded that people who spend time meditating—or praying—for someone else tend to feel more concern for others.2 “We found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help,” reports Helen Weng, lead author of the study.3
Weng’s study also found that those who are more compassionate are more likely to act out of the concern they feel for others. True compassion inspires us to act, though whether we choose to act or not is up to us. Kindness is compassion in action. Hooria Jazaieri, a Berkeley researcher who also teaches a compassion class at Stanford, says that compassion allows us to let go of negative feelings that keep us from being kind to others.4
The end result of one act of kindness is often unknowable—unless you happen to be in the drive-thru at In-N-Out Burger on the same magical night as the guy in the red car. But we know how we feel when someone sends us a note of encouragement, or gives up a seat for an elderly person, or hands change to the little boys in the grocery line who don’t have quite enough money for their pop and candy.
When a person is kind to us or when we witness an act of kindness, we feel like giving too; we want to pay it forward. Even small acts create a ripple effect. The following true stories all began with one person’s gift of service, and that act radiated outward into an ever-widening circle—as kindness tends to do.
- - - - - - - - - -
Abby’s Pay-It-Forward Project
Every year around her birthday, eleven-year-old Abby organizes a pay-it-forward project using a $25 donation of seed money from her grandmother. In 2014, when Abby was seven years old, her project was to cook breakfast for the Lakewood Police Department in Colorado as a thank-you for their service to the community. Abby told the police officers she “wanted to do something for the police because you guys do so much for us, and I wanted to do something for you guys.”
Her idea sprang from a visit by TJ Jacobson, a police officer who visited Abby’s second-grade classroom to teach her and her classmates how to be kind to others and how to spread kindness. “I think it takes—to be a police officer—bravery, courageness, kindness,” Abby says. “Police officers need kindness so that they can teach other people how to be kind.”
Abby’s second-grade classmates caught the spirit of her pay-it-forward project and wanted to help, so they each created a thank-you card and wrote personal notes to the Lakewood police officers. “To have that appreciation from so many and to hear it put in their words was really special,” says Jacobson.
Abby works hard to add to the $25 her grandmother gives her so she can help others in need. “When I do my pay-it-forward projects, I feel like I’m sharing a part of me with the world,” she says. “I will be doing these projects for probably a really long time, I hope.”
See Abby’s 2014 pay-it-forward project video on the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation website at randomactsofkindness.org/kindness-videos/9-abbys-pay-it-forward-project.
- - - - - - - - - -
From Sadness Comes Kindness
The American poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells the story that inspired her famous poem “Kindness.” She and her husband were traveling in South America the week after their wedding when, while on a bus in Colombia, they were robbed of all their possessions, including their money and passports. “Someone else who was on the bus with us was killed,” Nye says.
Alone, frightened, and stranded in an unfamiliar town with night coming on, the newly-weds were talking about what they should do next when a kind stranger approached them. In Spanish he asked what had happened, and the young couple tried to explain. “He listened to us,” Nye says, “and he looked so sad. And he said, ‘I’m very sorry. I’m very, very sorry that happened.’”
Although he did nothing more, the contrast between the stranger’s compassion and the violent encounter on the bus moved Nye to sit in the plaza of that small Colombian town, pocket notebook and pencil in hand, and write what she now understood about human compassion in action. “Kindness” has become one of her best-loved and most famous poems.
“Before you know what kindness really is / you must lose things,” is the declaration in the first line of Nye’s poem. She describes the Indian killed on the bus, lying dead by the side of the road in a white poncho. She writes that in order for us to understand “the tender gravity of kindness,” we have to understand that we could each be that man; we must somehow feel about others as we feel about ourselves to really get what kindness is. Once we reach that deep level of empathy, “then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.”
Read Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem and hear her story at brainpickings.org/2016/11/10/naomi-shihab-nye-kindness.
- - - - - - - - - -
Forty Seconds of Compassion
How would you answer the question “What is the most pressing problem of our time?” After months of mulling that question over, Stephen Trzeciak, a critical-care doctor at Cooper University Health Care in Camden, New Jersey, knew that surviving heart attacks and blood infections—the topics he spent his days on—were not the answer. To him, the biggest problem facing doctors today is compassion.
An avid researcher, Trzeciak read through the data on compassion and soon realized, to his surprise, that he suffered from burnout. Twenty years of helping patients through the fight of their lives had taken its toll. But while the literature prescribed escape—vacations, nature hikes, relaxation techniques—as the best cure for burnout, Trzeciak thought the data suggested that “leaning in, rather than escapism, is good for the provider.”
Trzeciak was inspired by a 1999 Johns Hopkins University study that concluded that if doctors spent just forty seconds reassuring cancer patients that they were walking this road together, patients felt less anxiety. When Trzeciak focused on expressing at least forty seconds of compassion for each of his patients, he saw a difference in himself and his patients. “I connected more. I cared more, not less,” he says. “That’s when the fog of burnout began to lift, so it changed everything for me too.”
As a result of Trzeciak’s success with his own patients, Cooper University Health Care started compassion studies that will benefit both patients and physicians. Trzeciak, along with Anthony Mazzarelli, who became copresident of Cooper University Health Care last fall, and Brian Roberts, a Cooper emergency physician, will study three things: first, caregiver compassion and how it affects post-traumatic stress disorder among critically ill patients; second, how compassion training affects provider burnout; and third, the costs related to compassion training.
Empathy, Trzeciak says, is feeling another’s pain. Compassion goes beyond empathy and inspires action.
Read the whole story online in the 15 March 2018 edition of Philadelphia Inquirer at philly.com/philly/health/cooper-doctors-study-compassion-crisis-in-health-care-20180315.html.
- - - - - - - - - -
Giving Away Doughnuts at a Bus Stop
“I bought two dozen doughnuts at Krispy Kreme and plopped myself in the middle of the bus station. . . . As people walked by, I’d approach them and say, ‘Hi, there! I’m doing random acts of kindness today. Would you like a free doughnut?’”
That’s how Vanessa Daves begins the
1 June 2017 blog post about her experience handing out doughnuts while she waited for a bus to Edinburgh, Scotland. “Some people said no, which is fine,” she writes. “After all, if a stranger offered me free food, I’d probably be a little creeped out too. But some said yes—and many of them thanked me profusely.”
A recent college graduate, Daves spent three months last summer touring Europe and performing random international acts of kindness along the way. Daves offered doughnuts to complete strangers in and around the bus station, including the car rental workers. She offered doughnuts to members of a Peruvian family, who accepted the tasty treat with gratitude. Daves spent enough time with the family to find out that they lived in Germany and didn’t speak English well, so she chatted with them in Spanish. Her best contact of the day, though, was Philip, a Scottish man who she describes as “old enough to be my father.”
Philip was one of the first people to take a doughnut, and he ended up riding the bus with Daves and her friend to Edinburgh, his hometown. “He told us some of the best sights to see and gave us tips for our travel through Scotland, even teaching us how to say some of the Scottish words that are a tad difficult to say (Edinburgh, for instance, is pronounced more like “Ed-in-burr-uh”).”
When they arrived in Edinburgh, Daves and her friend were lost, so Philip showed them the way to their hostel, even though it was out of his way. “I’ve traveled a lot, so I know how important it is to have help from locals and find your way,” he told them. “And this is your first impression of Scotland—I want you to know how hospitable we are!”
Daves admitted that she was reluctant to accept help from a strange man in a strange land, but she was glad she did. Before they parted at the hostel, Daves and her friend and Philip exchanged contact information, and he offered to meet with them at their next stop in Glasgow. When Daves thanked him for his help, he said, “Well, it was all because of that doughnut you gave me.”
If a stranger offered me free food, I'd probably be a little creeped out too. But some said yes—and many of them thanked me profusely.
Read Daves’s full story and find links to her other stories of international random acts of kindness at randomactsofkindness.org/the-kindness-blog/2945-giving-away-free-donuts-at-a-bus-stop-is-simple-enough-at.
- - - - - - - - - -
Surgery on Sunday
On the third Sunday of every month, Dr. Andrew Moore gathers with a handful of other doctors and about eighty volunteers at the Lexington Surgery Center in Lexington, Kentucky, to provide free and essential outpatient surgical procedures for people who are either underinsured or have no insurance and do not qualify for federal or state assistance.
For forty years, Moore and his brothers had been donating free care to these patients who didn’t make enough money to pay for surgery. In 2005, Moore started the not-for-profit organization Surgery on Sunday. Thirteen years later, hundreds of volunteers consistently offer their help and expertise to the clinic. “Once you get [volunteers] to the surgical center for the first time, they’re hooked,” says Moore.
Surgery on Sunday has inspired several other independent clinics to provide essential services to patients who cannot pay for medical care. The goal, says Moore, is for the Surgery on Sunday model to spread all over the nation.
Since 2005, more than four hundred volunteers (surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, scrub techs, and administrative personnel) have given their time and expertise to the clinic. To date, volunteers have donated nearly one hundred thousand hours of service and performed nearly six thousand surgeries. Want to get involved? Read how at surgeryonsunday.org.
- - - - - - - - - -
What You Can Do
One kind act usually sparks another, but it doesn’t need to have bells and whistles. Quiet service is the best service, so think about what you can do to be kind to strangers. Or to your coworkers. Or to animals. How about being kind online? Because we all know the virtual world could use a little more kindness. The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation has lists of ideas to help you—here are a just a few:
Be Kind to Strangers
- Thank someone every week.
- Put a surprise in a mailbox.
- Buy lemonade from a stand.
- Leave quarters at a laundromat.
- Give a generous tip.
- Be a welcoming neighbor.
- Leave a surprise in a library book.
- Be kind to your server.
Be Kind to Coworkers
- Gift an inspirational book.
- Find out something new about a coworker.
- Endorse a skill or leave a positive recommendation on LinkedIn.
- Write a handwritten letter.
- Bake someone a cake.
- Write positive sticky notes.
- Tutor someone.
- Laugh often.
Be Kind to Animals
- Foster a pet for adoption.
- Adopt a pet.
- Donate used blankets to a shelter.
- Fill a birdhouse with seed in your yard.
Be Kind Online
- Send an encouraging email.
- Message someone good morning or
- good night.
- Start a fundraiser.
- Share your favorite recipe.
- Write a positive comment on a website or blog.
- Reply to a post you enjoy.
- Praise a local business online.
The Three Atoms of Kindness
Kindness is a hybrid of empathy, compassion, and service.
Empathy: understanding and sharing another person’s experiences and emotions because you’ve had the same experiences and emotions.
Compassion: concern for the sufferings of others that motivates us to action.
Service: the act of helping or doing work for someone.
Written by Cheri Pray Earl
Illustrations by Tommy Parker
About the Author
Cheri Pray Earl earned her bachelor's degree in English and her master's degree in creative writing from BYU where she teaches literature and creative writing. She writes mystery novels in her spare time and thinks about becoming a gardener. Earl lives in Provo, Utah, with her two dogs, Lizzie and Darcy.
- Lindsay Holmes, “8 Ways to Tell If You’re a Truly Compassionate Person,” Wellness, Huffington Post, 27 June 2014.
- Helen Y. Weng et al., “Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering,” Psychological Science 24, no. 7 (May 2013): 1171–80.
- Jill Ladwig, “Brain Can Be Trained in Compassion, Study Shows,” UW–Madison News, 22 May 2013.
- Elizabeth Bernstein, “Find Compassion for Difficult People,” Wall Street Journal, 31 July 2017.