When to do a Random Act of Kindness, Part I

(And when not to…)

On a hot summer day in Philly last year, I was standing on a street corner with a dear old friend from college after a lovely afternoon together. A homeless woman approached us. “Can you go in there with me and get me some candy?” she said, nodding to a CVS. Having just told my friend about my spiritual practice, I felt a surge of pride. Here was a chance to show her what I meant by lovingkindness! I offered the homeless woman a couple of dollars, a big smile on my face. The woman looked at me disdainfully. “No thank you,” she said coldly. As she walked away from us, she muttered, “It wasn’t about the money. I wanted the candy.” I felt mortified. I could almost see the ugly purple bruises on my ego.

Then a few weeks ago, I was in Starbucks after an invigorating walk. It was one of those delicious moments when the world seemed so alive, and I felt connected to everyone and everything. A young woman about my age slipped in line behind me. She looked tired and worn. She toted a red backpack with a doll sticking out the top, her hand grasping a shopping bag filled with stuffed animals. As we made eye contact, my inner happiness met her inner sadness. As I watched her fondle fruit cups and sandwiches behind the glass, carefully inspecting price tags, something stirred in me. I keenly wanted to pay for that food. But the memory of that other homeless woman in Philly kept coming up. What if she didn’t want me to? What if she scolded me and made a scene? By the time I finished racking my brain for ways I could give her the money discreetly, the cashier was handing me my receipt and wishing me a nice day. The opportunity was lost. The woman stepped up and paid for her own meal.

Both times, my ego got in the way. On that Philly street, it prodded me to show off by giving. In the Santa Barbara Starbucks, it halted me from giving, even though my heart sorely wanted to. Putting both events together, here’s what I learned:

•             If it’s ego behind your inclination to give spontaneously, rethink it.

•             If it’s your heart, go with it.

In other words, the energy behind the act is more important than the act itself. Our ego always has an agenda, while our heart simply wants to serve.

Ego takes many shapes and sizes. Sometimes it prompts us to be a peacock, displaying our spiritual feathers for all the world to see. Other times it seeks “karma points” for doing a random act of kindness – something so trendy these days. In both cases, the act of giving is compromised by our attachment to a specific outcome. Since attachment is the root of all suffering, at least according to Buddhist philosophy, this kind of giving can never satisfy our souls.

When our ego convinces us not to act, it disguises itself as our defender. “Rejection is the worst thing that could ever happen to you!” it cries. Our minds begin calculating the cost to our pride if we offered to help someone and they shunned us. Our desire for safety outweighs whatever needs the other person may have (I once heard that our first thought comes from spirit, while our second one comes from the mind. This was true for me in Starbucks – my mind contradicted my spirit).

So how do we get past ego? For me, the trick is to pay attention to the energy spiral inside of me. If I feel inspired or excited to give, it’s probably a good idea. If I feel obligated to give, or self-righteous about doing so, it’s better not to. There’s no shortage of opportunities to be generous, and I’d rather do it when I’m heart-centered.

Such an opportunity arose when I donated a bag of clothes to my local Goodwill recently. Whenever you do this, the worker there offers you a receipt with a 25% off coupon to the store. My original intention had been to keep that coupon for future use, since castoffs from wealthy Santa Barbarians can become the crown jewels of my new wardrobe (I call this Goodwill Hunting). And yet when I glimpsed someone holding the door open for a ragged-looking man in a wheelchair, my heart steered me right over to him, my hand outstretched: “Going shopping, sir? Here’s a coupon if you want it.” In that case, I followed the energy spiral before my ego even had a chance to pipe up.

I do see the value in giving anonymously, however. This is one reason I prefer paying for the next person at tollbooths, rather than coffee shops. In the tollbooth scenario, the recipient will never feel singled out in public by my random act of kindness. In cafés, a person might genuinely feel embarrassed if they aren’t interested in my hand out.

So I thought of a solution. I’m now carrying around a pack of Post-its in my purse with this phrase written on them: “Please put this towards the next person’s order.” That way I can hand it silently to the cashier with some folded bills. One drawback is that I’ll miss out on opportunities for authentic moments of connection with other people, which is often the best part of being generous. My idea is to use the Post-it method only until I feel more comfortable with giving from my heart in public.

How will this all turn out? I’ll keep you Post-ed!