The Misanthrope Tries–In Which I Give RAOK’s a Go

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.

KittyGenovese
In all fairness, they now know that there’s not much the bystanders could have done to prevent Genovese’s stabbing. Few, if any, were even aware it was happening. But all the same, her face lingers in my mind as a haunting reminder that it’s only by the grace of others that we survive.

***

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.

Largemouth
Don’t attempt to hook me into conversation, I beg you.

***

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.

8766890.0
Not this one. Anyone “butt” this one!

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.

Old_Nike_logo
Since I did use your slogan, though, feel free, Nike, Inc., to pay it forward in the form of Air Lilies, for which our family should receive full royalties. K thanx bye.

***

Picture Credits:

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17 thoughts on “The Misanthrope Tries–In Which I Give RAOK’s a Go

  1. Allie P. says:

    While on the surface it might seem that the cigarette was wasted, you don’t know that the gift didn’t somehow manifest itself someplace else later that day. Perhaps that small buzz was only enough to allowed him/her to get through the hour without causing a disruption or ruining someone else’s day. That next person then had one less irate person to deal with and was able to maintain a smile which was then passed on to someone else, who was able to then really connect with family at the end of a hard day rather than obsessing over some small affront. You have no idea how large a butterfly effect your act of kindness might have had. Now the trees might argue, but I think a couple of wasted envelops might have been worth the experiment.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Patricia says:

    I have been the recipient of Starbuck’s pay-it-forward and I choose to believe that the giver did it out of a wanting to make someone’s day just a little bit better and it works for me. However, I do not pay it forward at the time it is done for me because then it would be done out of guilt or some sort of game as your co-worker thinks. I wait until the mood strikes me so that I can truly give someone else the opportunity to be surprised and feel cared about in the moment. Its the least I can do to make up for my impatience with people who do not “move it forward” in line because they are texting or reading their phones. I have had my car bumped from behind so many times. One lady did it three times. One man who bumped me paid for my coffee, the lady offered me a massage. What?

    Sorry, I got on my diatribe. Where was I? Oh yeah, our reward should be the benefit we give to others but I think human nature is that our reward is the feeling we get from the doing or giving. I guess I would have to admit that I do not know the meaning of selfless. My 15 year old emotional self is needy, very needy so she requires the reward of others passing it back. She doesn’t know the meaning of selfless. She is resentful and if anyone knew the thoughts that go through her head…it would not be good. That being said, I love to give and she wants to get back. For the most part, she wants a positive response to her gift. That shithead gets me into emotional turmoil all the time. She is very angry I think.😡

    Speaking of selfish, enough about me. My original thought was WOW! Great idea! Please do not become cynical based on that one experiment. It did prove that people have become very self absorbed and, yes, cynical. Unfortunately, we can’t change other people, we can only change how we react to them. I wonder though if that person was really able to walk away without the realization deep down that they were being an asshole. Seriously! We can escape others’ scrutiny but we can’t escape our own. It is my opinion (there’s that word again) that people who are able to do that sort of thing are angry people and probably don’t even realize it. Too deep? Nah, you are in a deep mood so you can take it. Thanks for caring enough to try. I see you as a very sensitive woman who loves deeply. I am going to leave it at that. Finally, you say. 😓

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      Sounds like you’ve had some crazy experiences at Starbucks! I’ve never once been offered a massage, but then, I also haven’t been hit from behind, so I guess there’s always a trade-off?

      I’m trying to work a little harder to be good to people Just Because but I, too, have an internal teenager who still isn’t overly fond of the world and its people just yet. Of course, sometimes, I’m not overly fond of that teenager, either, so all’s fair in internal warfare?

      I won’t become any more cynical than I already was, though, I promise. 😉 I want my daughter to see me model a healthy dose of skepticism balanced with an occasional burst of optimism!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Patricia says:

        You know that they grow up in spite of you, don’t you? I got out of the car after the lady hit me for the third time and she was very timid. I told her that she had bumped me twice and she said “I didn’t know that.” She apologized so I returned to my car. She bumped me again so I went back to her car and asked if she was o.k. because by then I was feeling guilty for being impatient with her. She said thought that when I took my foot off the brake (because I put my car in park to save the brakes and my foot), she thought I was going to move forward. Did she see my car moving forward? No. Anyway, she apologized and told me that she was the manager of a massage parlor across the street and if I came in, she would see that I got a free massage. Noooo thanks. Funny huh? You have to realize that I was at Starbuck’s once or twice a day. It was my daily habit and if I was working late evenings, it was to keep me awake. Then Danny told me that spending 30 to 40 dollars a week was getting a little out of hand. He said that I needed to learn to make them myself. So I did with the Magic Bullet I got him for Christmas. Faster and I like mine better. So now I have discussed Starbucks to death, have a great weekend.😄

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Patricia says:

        But its not really fair. Danny uses Starbuck’s beans at what $14 or so a pop (Italian Roast AND Espresso together) heavy whipping cream (Horizon organic) at almost $5 a pop (I buy them 4 at a time), Smucker’s caramel ice cream topping at about $4 a pop ( I buy at least 3 at a time. It depends on whether I can reach them on the top shelf. I usually just knock them on the floor, however I did break one all over Kroger’s floor once), and Splenda about $10 a bag unless I get it at Sam’s. He drinks the whole pot out of the mug he searched the internet for weeks to find. He has 2 bean vac’s at $40 apiece. What is a bean vac, you ask? They are pressurized canisters that have a timer to keep his coffee beans fresh. One time the coating came off the rubber lid and I had to search the internet for days to find replacements. I finally figured out where I got them and exchanged them. He told me today that they he read that they don’t really do any good so he is just using them for storage. When we have guests, they kinda freak out because when they pressurize, they sound literally like a ticking bomb.

        I do use the caramel and Splenda but he makes coffee base with Folger’s Silk not Starbuck’s beans. But yes, he does make me pots of coffee that I keep in a container in the fridge for daily use. Do you think I’m spoiled? 😍

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Patricia says:

        When I finally developed a taste for coffee, I went high class. We want what we want. I am finally forcing myself to buy some store brands but we have had such bad luck in the past with them that I hesitate. But we are having to really cut back until we close on the house and get moved and settled. Here I go again, ask me my name and I give my life’s history. lol

        Liked by 1 person

  3. davidprosser says:

    I agree with Allie that though the envelopes were in the rubbish now at some future point when our nameless friend is flush he/she may well leave a cigarette for the next unfortunate. Maybe not in that place but somewhere where smokers congregate. Or it may be their faith in human nature has been restored and they won’t tell fibs next time someone tries to bum a smoke. I hope not, it may be me.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  4. originaltitle says:

    This is just personal, but I feel sometimes like the random act of kindness does more for me than it does for the person to whom that kindness was given. I can’t lie, I feel great if I have the opportunity to help someone. I really like being helpful. Is that wrong? Is that twisted somehow that maybe if I see an opportunity to help someone, I am eager to help because I know it will also make me feel purposeful, good and a decent human being for a small moment? I wish I could say I really did do nice things for nothing in return but that’s not true. Even if I opened a door for someone and they told me to shove it, I’d still feel good about it because hey, they didn’t have to open that door themselves. In the end, though, when an act of kindness if given to someone who is truly in need, there’s another side to that initial burst of good-feeling having helped someone and that’s knowing that it’s probably not actually enough. They probably need a lot more than you’re able to give them in passing. I don’t know, these are all my rambly thoughts on the subject, but it’s a great post. I’m glad someone got that cigarette and lighter. It probably made their day. There’s nothing like finding something you really need/want in a crucial moment. Great post, great experiment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      No, I agree; I think we all get some kind of a boost from helping others. (Or else, why would we do it?) But you’re right, the ones we help the most are probably the ones who need more than we can ever do for them. You’ve given me more to ponder on the subject.

      Liked by 1 person

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