Dear Lily June,
Every day, I go out to a black fenced-in area the exact width and length of three car spaces at the tail end of the campus parking lot to smoke a cigarette. (I know, I know, my darling dear. Attempts to quit have been met with resistance by my body’s habituation to nicotine. The new date has been set for your first Christmas, whereby I may give you the gift–or curse–of my additional few years on the planet when I finally set my packs down for good. But I digress.) I affectionately refer to this area as “The Cage.”
It was in said Cage the other day that I witnessed an interesting phenomenon. Though the place was packed with other smokers–all desperately getting their daily dose of thanatos through the coffin nails they were inhaling–one lone street punk was attempting to bum. He went to “friend” after “friend” but no one was lending. This one was on his “last cigarette of the pack”; that one had “bummed one, too.”
You could just tell from the way their eyes darted to the ground like eight balls knocked hard into a corner pocket that they were lying. I’d rarely seen the place as full, nor seen an attempt to get a free smoke end up in one so empty-handed. (He didn’t ask me and, being the introvert I am, I didn’t offer without the request.)
I knew what this was from a poem I’d written and researched for about a woman named Kitty Genovese, who was brutally murdered while at least a dozen onlookers supposedly looked the other way. This was the phenomenon known as the diffusion of responsibility.
In other words, the more people present at a given moment where you might be in serious need of assistance, the less likely any single person is to actually help. Each shoulder-shrugger assumes it’s the responsibility of the next passerby to save you. In this way, at best, people don’t get what they need from one another. At worst, people die.
When it comes to other people, I’ve always liked the stance of Moliere’s famous misanthrope:
“My hate is general, I detest all men; / Some because they are wicked and do evil, / Others because they tolerate the wicked, / Refusing them the active vigorous scorn /
which vice should stimulate in virtuous minds.”
In other words, it’s not just the “bad people” who make the world a “bad place.” It’s the good people who stand by and do nothing, too.
It’s all the easier to do nothing for one another now, what with this being the world of mass communication. I’ll explain. There’s another phenomenon I witness in the Cage quite often: Dozens of college students congregate with their cancer sticks (see a running theme, Lily? Don’t Smoke!) in a relatively confined space, and given the option to talk to a stranger face to face or bury their noses in cell phones where they can use “social” media to stay “connected” with the world, they opt for impersonal screens over personal interaction 9 out of 10 times.
Even to an introvert like myself– who, whenever someone attempts to speak with me, gapes in horror like a largemouth bass in a stream where the local bears have just learned how to operate fishing polls–finds this disconcerting.
Like Dostoevsky’s narrator in Notes from Underground, as much as I’d like to detest humanity outright for their blatant cruelty or–equally as heinous–their diabolical indifference, in actuality, I’m pretty good at raising my hopes for our species only to have them dashed quite expertly. Of course, the fault there lies in myself, and I’ll get to that, too. (Despite being a smoker, I’m ironically in an incredibly long-winded mood!)
I was initially moved by the poor (possibly poor-poor) smoker’s plight, and, motivated to action, at the start of last week, I put a lighter, cigarette, and spare envelope into another envelope, and taped it to a sign in The Cage. On the outside of the envelope, I wrote, “In case of Bad Day, Open Me. Yes, you.” I included in that envelope the following letter. (Now I’m getting meta-, Lily. A letter within a letter. Can you handle it?)
Dear Random Smoker,
I’m genuinely sorry that you had to open this envelope. If you had to open this envelope, it means you’re having a rotten day. And I know, I truly know, what it is to be having a day like that. I also know what it means to need a cigarette, maybe even one you can’t afford. So I’ve included a cigarette in this letter and a lighter in case you’re the only one in “the cage” at the time this letter is found.
Maybe you’ve tried to bum a smoke before, and you’ve received a lot of blank stares. Maybe even glares. Maybe you’ve been giving those old lines “This is my last one” or “I bummed this one myself.” Maybe they were true, and maybe they weren’t.
But there’s something called the diffusion of responsibility. The more people who are in this “cage,” the less who are likely to help you. Each one holds another responsible for being “the one” to come to your aid. And if you’re having a bad day—if you failed a test or slept in accidentally or ripped your clothes or what have you–this social principle really sucks. And this is my little experiment to see if we can change it.
You can have this cigarette, free of charge and with no real obligation. But if you’re so inclined, the next time you do have a pack on you, leave your own smoke behind. I’ve even included an envelope, so all you have to do is slip into it a letter of your own (or even slide this original letter back in with a new envelope), the lighter, and a cigarette you provide.
Consider it like “take a bum, leave a bum.”
Maybe you’ll change my faith in humanity, igniting a chain of events where I’m inspired to help others just like this. And you’ll have taken your bad day, in that case, and made it another’s good day. Without even knowing it.
Maybe you’ll just “steal” the cigarette and run. Maybe rain will render the experiment void, or maybe you’re one of the incredibly hard-working people paid to clean this “cage” out, and you’ll just dispose of this. Maybe you won’t even read it.
But I’m willing to try to cut through the diffusion. I’m reaching out to you, stranger. Your bad day now has purpose. And so do you. What will you do now?
I hope your day gets better,
A Fellow Smoker (Maybe Even Someone in this “Cage” Right Now)
P.S. If you opened this and you don’t need it, please put it back for someone who does. You have my gratitude for that much.
So what became of the experiment? Unfortunately, Lily, next to nothing. When I went out hours later to The Cage again, I found my internal and external envelopes in the trash, though the letter, smoke, and lighter were purloined by the lucky finder-keeper. I can’t deny the fact that my bottom lip pouted out so far, the fishing bear above could have plunked his bottom onto it for a seat.
And yet, I did offer the free smoke of my own free will. I said it came with no obligation then went ahead and hoped anyway to create a Pay it Forward style chain of events that saved all of humanity. But it didn’t work out so well for Haley Joel Osmond’s character, either–and he was way kinder–so I’m not sure why I put so much stock in my own endeavor. If I was doing it to see results, I was doing it for the wrong reasons. That’s not random. And there’s a reason they’re called Random Acts of Kindness.
I don’t know who started the RAOK/Pay It Forward recent revivals, but I do know the expressions themselves are older than me. “Paying it forward” is actually the older of the two, and though the concept comes from finance, the phrase itself is thought to have come from writer Lily (Lily!) Hardy Hammond in her 1916 book In the Garden of Delight, where she wrote,
“You don’t love back; you pay it forward.”
As to “Random Acts of Kindness,” the origins of the expression are more questionable, but one theory holds that it was coined by American writer Anne Herbert, who claims that she scribbled on a place mat in a San Francisco restaurant in 1982 that we should
“Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.”
But really, Lily, the debate over who said what gets to the heart of the matter: It’s not about who starts the thing, it’s about who keeps going with kindness, even in the face of a seeming failure like my own.
Disappointed, I told a graduate student in the department where I work–who also smokes–what I had attempted to do. And he told me about how a Starbuck’s had experienced a recent run of people “paying it forward” where the first car in a line had paid for the order behind theirs, and so on and so forth with the act continuing until it had spanned the course of an entire day.
He brought it up cynically–saying it’s likely baristas had, at some point, pushed consumers to keep the kindness going or that the company itself had started the “random” act, orchestrating it all as a PR stunt–but it must have stuck in the back of my mind as the kind of thing that proved people are good-intentioned at their core.
And it was last weekend, on Saturday, when I ran into a co-worker in front of me in the line at Starbuck’s. We chatted through our windows while waiting at the drive-through, then once she pulled away and I got to the window, I found she had actually purchased my own drink. And so, being faced with now getting something for nothing, I decided to keep it going, too, and paid for the car behind me, too.
Did that keep going or not? I don’t know, Lily, because I had the benefit of driving off. I also had the great misfortune of reading this article today, which explains how doing this kind of deed only provides a kind of charity if the person behind you actually doesn’t keep it going. Otherwise, everyone’s paying for everyone else’s drinks and no one benefits. But maybe it wasn’t that unfortunate that I found this at all, because what it teaches me about RAOK, and my failure with the cigarette, is this:
Kindness isn’t necessarily supposed to be returned. It’s not meant to be a domino that tips a giftee into becoming the next gifter. It’s not necessarily meant to glorify the initial giver, either. All it’s meant to do, if it’s truly random, is to make the day of one stranger. Now, maybe you’re unlucky, and the person you help grows up to be the equivalent of a menthol-puffing Hitler. Or maybe you’ve helped the next Mother Theresa with a Skim MoCharity Latte. But it doesn’t matter. The point is that you put good energy into the universe, without expecting anything in return, especially not your own glory.
And you should try–whenever the universe presents you with an opportunity to give, to help, to save someone else–to step up and step in. You shouldn’t do it because, one day, you might need the same favor returned, because, honestly, who knows if there’s really a cosmic score keeper making sure the balance is maintained at even. You should just do it. Because. Kindness is its own reward and requires no reason. Just don’t, afterwards, try to gain any credit by admitting you did it. And certainly don’t blog about it. Or you’ll ruin it.
- “Charity to Street Arab” by Needham, Geo C. “Street Arabs and Gutter Snipes”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charity_to_Street_Arab.jpg#/media/File:Charity_to_Street_Arab.jpg
- “KittyGenovese” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:KittyGenovese.JPG#/media/File:KittyGenovese.JPG
- “Largemouth” by Jonathunder. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Largemouth.JPG#/media/File:Largemouth.JPG
- “Old Nike logo” by Nike, Inc. – http://www.logoinn.net/history-mythology-nike-logo/. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_Nike_logo.jpg#/media/File:Old_Nike_logo.jpg