Category Archives: Altruism and Compassion

# 68 Consider the Kindness of Strangers

pink-dot                                                                                                                                                                                my crew

We know that doing a favor for someone else makes us feel good.  For some of us it even makes us feel morally superior, self righteous.  When I notice that my neighbor’s garbage bin is sitting on the curb for a couple of days, indicating she is out of town, I bring it up to her house for her.  Doing so gives me a boost up the mood scale of a few points.  But how often do we consider the reverse?  That we are the recipient of favors being done for us all the time?

Sometimes, when we least expect it, we have been the beneficiaries of the kindness of strangers–your wallet was returned, someone gave up a seat for you in the movie theater, someone returned your “lost child” or lost pet to you. Perhaps someone let you in line ahead of them because you had fewer groceries, someone helped you jump your car battery, opened the door for you, or gave you directions when you couldn’t find your way. You’ve been waiting to enter a busy street and a driver slow down to wave you in ahead of him.  When I am on a bicycling trip and I stop to check the map, other cyclists stop to ask, “Are you OK?  Do you need help?”  I have been given food, water, maps, and directions.  Strangers on bicycles have put the chain back on the sprockets of my bike;  others have  fixed a flat tire for me.  I can recall three occasions when a stranger in a car or truck spotted me beside the road, unable to goany further, put my bike  in their vehicle, and drove me home.,

If we can stop and take note of all these small events, we soon see that we live in a benevolent world where the kindness of strangers flows around us like the wind.  When have you been the beneficiary of the kindness of strangers recently?



# 67 Pray for a Stranger

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????       pink-dot      Many years ago I attended an Episcopalian weekend retreat in which we were asked to do something unusual. We were given a piece of paper and asked to write on it a personal concern without giving our name, fold it, and put it in a basket.  The baskets were circulated, and we were then asked to select a piece of paper from the basket, read the concern, and pray for that person.  We were being asked to pray for a stranger.  The paper I read was a confession of self loathing.  I was distressed by it.  I couldn’t imagine who, in that congregation, could feel so terribly about themselves.  I offered my prayer into the community of prayers said that morning in the little wood chapel in a pine forest.

Have you ever prayed for a stranger?

Recently I heard the author River Jordan speak about her memoir, Praying for Strangers.  You can find it at:

Jordan says she embarked on a year of praying for others reluctantly.  She had always seen herself as an author, not someone who wrote about personal experiences.  Yet once she began this journey—of praying for one stranger each day for a year—she felt compelled to continue the journey and to write about it.  She did so by resolving each day to walk up to a complete stranger, asking for the person’s name, then asking permission to say a prayer for them that night.  The results were at times moving, sometimes funny, and often poignant.  One woman remarked to her,  “I’m so glad you asked me.  I was just praying for others this morning, and I asked God if anybody out there was listening.”

Just for today, pray for a stranger. You may not want to walk up to a stranger and ask their name as Jordan did. Simply spot someone you see and make a mental note of that person.  Or consider someone you have read or heard about in the media today who is in crisis.  Tonight, at bedtime, say a prayer for them.  I don’t know if praying has any demonstrable effect on the cosmos.  We are sending out messages to the universe, like the Buddhist prayer flags.  But praying for others does make us more mindful of the suffering of the world..  It keeps us grounded and keeps our own struggles in perspective.

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# 63 Consider the Goodness of Humanity

pink-dottrees on the water

       Many years ago I chanced upon The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono.  It is a brief story, written in 1954 as a piece about an unforgettable character.

The story begins around 1913 when the author is taking a long trip on foot through the valleys of the Provence.  He comes upon a valley that is barren and devoid of trees, villages, crops.  The wind blows across the barren plain.  The spring is dry.  The few remaining homes are in disrepair.  The author meets there a farmer by the name of Elzeard Bouffier who is watching over his sheep.  Bouffier lives in a neat, well ordered cottage and offers the author a bed for the night.

The next morning Bouffier is up early with a sack of acorns and an iron rod a yard and a half long, pointed at one end.  He makes a hole in the earth, puts the acorn in, and covers the hole.  He tells the author that for three years, he has been planting acorns in the wilderness.  Though Bouffier was 55 years old, he had planted one hundred thousand trees.  Of those, twenty thousand had sprouted.  Of those, he expected to lose half, but that ten thousand would grow where there had been none before.  Bouffier goes on to explain that his wife and son had died, and that he had withdrawn into this solitude.  He felt that the land was dying for want of trees.

       The author goes into the French Army for five years and survives the War of 1914.  When the war is over, he decides to return to the valley.  The oaks of 1910 were now ten years old.  The author spends the day walking through Bouffier’s forest in silence.  “When you remembered that all this sprang from the hands and the soul of this one man, without technical resources, you understood that men could be as effectual as God in other realms than that of destruction.”

But Bouffier was not finished.  Though now 60 years old, he had been planting birch seedlings which had begun to sprout in 1910.  There were now clumps of birch trees as well.  Because of the trees, the water reappeared in the springs.  The wind scattered the seeds.  Then willows, rushes, and meadows appeared here and there.  But the transformation was so gradual that no one noticed.  Hunters in the forest who now hunted game assumed the forest just reappeared of its own accord.

In 1935 a whole delegation came from the Government to proclaim the “natural forest” that had grown up around the town.  The whole forest was put under the protection of the State and the trees were forbidden to be cut down.  During these years, Elzeard Bouffier continued his plantings of seedlings and acorns, day after day.  He became so solitary he lost the use of speech altogether.  Yet he is happy in his simple life.

The author goes back in 1945 and is amazed to see now a whole town has grown where there used to be but a few hovels.  There is a fountain in the center of the town, and a linden tree, planted as a symbol of hope.  There are fields of barley and rye.  The old streams, fed by the rains and snows that the forest conserves, are flowing again.  On each farm are maples and tall grasses.  More than ten thousand people live in comfort, owing their happiness to Elzeard Bouffier.

Giono closes, “When I reflect that one man, armed only with his own physical and moral resources, was able to cause this land of Canaan to spring from the wasteland, I am convinced that in spite of everything, humanity is admirable.”


Giono, J.  1985.  The Man Who Planted Trees. Chelsea, Vt.:  Chelsea Green Pubs.


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# 62 Pay It Forward

pay it forwardpink-dot

A few years ago a film came out about a boy who sets out to do a significant act of kindness toward three people.  When the people he helps try to pay back the favor, he refuses their offers, and asks only that they “pay it forward.”   In the movie by the same name, the boy’s efforts get off to a rocky start, but then set in motion a groundswell of altruism that comes to be called “the movement.”

We like to think that it could be possible that the beneficiary of the favor did, in fact, pass it on, and that the favor rippled through the world in an unbroken chain, bringing forth good will endlessly.  It’s a beautiful thought, but unrealistic.  However, people do favors every day and ask nothing in return.  The giver is uplifted.  The recipient is encouraged to believe that there are good people in the world.  For that moment, the world is a brighter place for at least those two people.  The giver may feel the act worth repeating and so do it again some time.  The recipient, encouraged by the charity, may extend his or her generosity to another.

  1. Just for today, try one of these: circling the parking lot, competing for a good space, wave someone in to the more desirable spot, and take one that is further from the store. The walk will do you good.
  2. Don’t need those scratch sheets, coupons, giveaways at the department store? Give them to the customer next to you in line.
  3. Going through the token machine in the subway? Offer a token to someone behind you who would appreciate it–a student, an elderly person, a young mother with babies.
  4. Try this one that was reported in the media recently. When purchasing your fast food and paying for it at the drive thru, give the cashier an extra five or six bucks and tell them you’re “paying it forward” for the guy in the car behind you, and that you suggest that he/she pass it on.
  5. On December 26, 2013 at a Starbucks in Connecticut, a customer “paid it forward” for a coffee for the customer behind him and the chain went unbroken for 780 coffees.  On Aug. 22, 2014 a Starbucks in Florida had a chain of 458 coffees paid forward for 10 hours.  Start your own chain of coffees paid forward.
  6. If you haven’t found an opportunity to pay it forward, go to the website of the pay it forward foundation and do some reading.

Stay with this assignment a couple of days until you complete it.  Record what you did.


Pay It Forward (2000).  Director:  Mimi Leder.  Written by  Catherine Ryan Hyde.  Screen play by  Leslie Dixon..  Starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment.





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# 59 Reflect on the Goodness of Others

yad vashem pink-dot

       What moves a person to risk his or her life to save another person, a stranger?  While the story of the Jewish holocaust in Germany during World War II is a story of genocide and of whole communities standing aside as the Jews were sent to their deaths, it is also a story of altruism.  According to researchers Samuel and Pearl Oliner, of Humboldt State University in California, those individuals who hid Jews in their houses and apartments, and on their farms, saved upwards of 500,000 people.  To better understand what motivates people to save others, photographer Gay Block and author Malka Drucker, went on a three year journey to photograph and interview 105 rescuers from countries.  The answers, which often challenge our assumptions, are chronicled in their book, Rescuers:  Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust.                                   Visitors at Yad Vashem

            Sociologist Nechama Tec, of the University of Connecticut, conducted a systematic study of rescuers for her book, When Light Pierced the Darkness:  Christian rescue of Jews in Nazi-occupied PolandWhat is most striking about the group is their ordinariness.  They included the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the believers and the atheists.  They viewed themselves as quite ordinary as well.  “We didn’t think about it,” said one woman who, with her husband, saved dozens of Jews in Laren, Holland.  “We did what any human being would have done.”  Yet what they did was not ordinary.  One trait that set them apart was that they were individualists.  They did not follow the group, but followed their conscience.  Secondly, they had a history of doing good before the war broke out–visiting people in the hospital, collecting books for poor students.  Doing good had become a habit, and this simply continued through the war years.  Third, the rescuers shared a sense of universalism.  They saw the Jews, not as Jews, but simply as persecuted human beings.

Perhaps most astounding, the rescuers felt the gift of goodness could be passed on.  “It is like flowers growing in a certain soil,” said one woman who sheltered Jews in her home in the Ukraine.  “It is natural in every human being, but it must be nourished and cultivated.”

If you can, go to your public library and do some reading in these marvelous books.  The pictures in Rescuers are fascinating.  If you don’t have the time, go to the website  This is the website for Yad Vashem, a museum established in 1953 that honors both “Holocaust martyrs and the Righteous Among the Nations, Gentile (non-Jewish) rescuers who have been recognized for their ‘compassion, courage, and morality’ because they ‘risked their lives to save the lives of Jews.’ ”  The names of Righteous are added as they become known.  As of Jan.1, 2011, there were 23,788 names from 40 nations.  Poland tops the list with 6,266 names.  This is ironic in that anti-Semitism was strongest and most institutionalized in Poland.   Only in Poland were rescuers immediately  put to death.

Spent a moment of quiet reflection.  Consider the goodness of the 23,788


Block, G. & Drucker, M.  1992.  Rescuers:  Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust.  New York:  Holmes & Meier.

Gorman, C. 1992, Mar. 16.   “A Conspiracy of Goodness.”  Time, p. 65.

Tec, N.  1986.  When Light  Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland. New York:  Oxford U. Press.


#55 Volunteer and Improve Your Health

pink-dotpeople volunteering

There is some link between our happiness and the health of our heart.  Scientists have known this since the 1970’s when it was discovered that those people who are chronically tense, angry, and demanding (Type A personalities) also tend to have higher cholesterol levels and are more prone to heart attacks.  Researchers theorize that chronic irritability releases chemicals which convert lipids in the blood into LDL.

But does engaging in the opposite behavior—altruism, gratitude, savoring, for example—alter our heart health?  Psychologist Hannah Schreier at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and her colleagues, sought to find out by asking 106 high school students to participate in a study on volunteering.  Half of the students spent about one hour per week helping younger children with an activity—either homework, sports, or a club activity.  They did so for eight consecutive weeks. The other half of the students, the control group, did not do any volunteering.

The student volunteers were tested at the end of the study and found to have lower cholesterol levels than when they began the study.  They also had lower levels of inflammation and lower levels of body fat than the students who were wait-listed.  It did not seem to matter what type of volunteering the student did.

How could such a simple activity, over a short period of time, alter one’s health? The researchers did a further analyses of which students in the intervention group had the biggest gains in health.  They found that those who reported the highest levels (on several personality scales) of empathy for others, altruistic behavior, and the lowest levels of negative mood had the most improvement to their health.  Researchers have established previously that volunteering seems to make the elderly healthier and longer lived.  This was the first study to establish the same effect for teen-agers.  Thus, the effects are likely beneficial for all ages.

If previous entries to this publication haven’t convinced you to start volunteering, you now have another reason—do it for your health.  What’s holding you back?


Schreier, H., Schonert-Reichie, K., & Chen, E.  Feb. 25, 2013.  Effect of volunteering  on risk factors for cardiovascular disease in adolescents.  JAMA Pediatrics, 167 (4), 327-332.  Link to the article:

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# 30 Surprise Someone With Praise

pink-dotimagesCAQDJLN1     Over twenty years ago I was in a video store with my husband and young children checking out films, a very ordinary event.  A man in a straw hat walked by me with a big smile and said, “What a handsome family!”

The man, a stranger to me, surely forgot about the remark by the time he drove out of the parking lot.  Yet the compliment meant so much to me that I still recall it.  It costs so little to make an enthusiastically positive statement to another person–a few seconds.  Yet the comment may make that person’s day, even be remem-bered by the person years later.

I have tried to continue his surprising act of praise.  When a sales clerk has done a good job I  have asked for the manager and praised the clerk to her manager.  When I  have been helped with a difficult insurance claim by a claims processor, I have asked for the person’s supervisor’s address and sent a letter of praise.  Recently I read a report that had been written by a professional in another city eight years previously and was so impressed by it I tracked her down through a Google of her place of employment. I sent her an email commenting on what an excellent job she did.  She was shocked with gratitude.

Look for an opportunity today to make a positive remark to a complete stranger–the bus driver, the store clerk, the worker who makes your deli sandwich.  Record in a notebook  what you did.  Note the person’s reaction.  How did you feel?

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#26 Practice a Random Act of Kindness

pink-dotkindness coin.

Have you continued to engage in random acts of kindness (#7)?

Two men in a small town in Georgia, Steve Hasenfus and Scott Strength, were so imbued with the idea of passing on a favor that they decided to have a large number of coins minted out of brass which would be sold for a small price and passed on from person to person as favors are paid forward.  The coins are stamped Act of Kindness, and each is registered with a serial number.  The two men also created a web site to track the progress of each coin as it makes its way, hopefully, around the world.   The person who receives the coin, and performs a favor for someone, can go to the site and list the act of kindness for others to read.

After the web site was launched in April, 2002, 700 coins with about 140 sub-scribers were listed on the site.  Hundreds of acts of kindness were recorded.  The original site is no longer on the web.  However, you may go to a new and very similar site,

Go to the web site today.  Read some accounts.  If you can afford it, spend the 415.00 to order 10 coins.   Pass them out among a few friends.  Ask them to do a favor for someone and pass the coin on.

If you feel you just don’t have time to do a random act of kindness, click on the tab that says “e card.”  Send one to a friend along with a personal message.  Record their response.





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#16 Take a Community Walk


Take a walk today, a long walk.  Andrew Weil recommends regular walking as a step on the road to “optimum health.”  I live in the midtown area of a large urban metropolis.  It is an area where young urban professionals rub elbows with college students, gay couples, and homeless men.  Renovated Victorian homes are nestled among lofts, apartment buildings, trendy restaurants, and shelters for the down and out.  Though there are trash baskets every few blocks, there is always much litter on the ground–mostly beer bottles, empty cigarette packs, and fast food bags and cups.

Do you live in an area like this?  Besides getting your exercise, you can turn your walk into an exercise in altruism.  Here’s how:

  • When you see a newspaper in your neighbor’s driveway, or especially if you see several, take them up to the steps.  Your neighbor will appreciate it and wonder who put it there
  •  Pick up the trash on the street and put it in the trashcans along the way. If you’re worried about getting your hands dirty, bring a plastic bag, wear gloves.  People might look at you.  They might be inspired to follow your example.
  • Give the homeless man on the corner three bucks for lunch.  If you’re worried about what he’ll do with the money, bring gift certificates from a nearby fast-food restaurant instead.  Pass them out.
  • Wave to the bus driver and/or the letter carrier as you pass them along your route.

Record how your felt.  What else did you think to do on your “community walk”?

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# 7 Be a Cub Scout

Cub Scouting (Boy Scouts of America)

Cub Scouting (Boy Scouts of America) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

pink-dotIn  Cub Scouting, the Scout who earns a badge must wear it upside down until he does an “unasked for favor” for someone in the family.

  • What unasked for favor have you done for someone lately?  What  might you do today?  Wear a pin upside down today until you do an unasked for favor for someone.  If you don’t get a chance today, do it tomorrow.  If you don’t have a pin, wear your watch upside down.  Don’t wear a pin or a watch?  Change the ringtone on your smartphone until you perform your unasked for favor.
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