The discomfort and joy of Random Acts of Kindness
A meme circulated on social media early in the pandemic. “Please socially distance, shelter in place, don’t make eye contact. Radiologists, proceed as usual.” I chuckled because it was true. Radiologists, who must pay attention to the thousands of images daily, work hard to minimize distractions in the reading room. We soundproof the walls, keep the ambient light low and restrict visitor access. In a way, I’ve been practicing being in quarantine for 20 years.
The one visitor that always makes its way into the room is my ticker tape: the nagging inner narrator that provides the nonstop commentary of how my life is going, my own personal pundit. My mind often feels like my mind revs up, and the ticker tape narrator pipes up the moment I arrive at my reading station. The ticker tape drowns out my concentration, elbowing for my attention, pestering me with countless images of past errors and future mistakes. The tape reminds me of after-work tasks, appointments, and unpaid bills. She knows she can get my attention by reminding me why I didn’t get into my first choice of college or wasn’t invited to a friend’s sweet 16 party. Radiology is the study of images from the inside of the body to diagnose illness. Although it requires a vast body of knowledge of anatomy and pathology, it is as much a test of your capacity to focus as your medical smarts.
In an attempt to quiet the voice, I turned myself into a spiritual guinea pig. I studied breathing techniques, yoga, and meditation. I learned how kindness—the random kind towards friends, relatives, and strangers alike— quieted the voice in my head. I was to lose myself in the act of giving.
There had been a slew of research on the benefits of this practice. Aside from feeling good, giving increases optimism, creativity, and intelligence and alleviates loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Like exercise, yoga, and prayer, it changes the blood flow to the brain. But like those sometimes challenging practices, the neurochemical hit comes only if the action makes you uncomfortable. Opening a door for someone is sweet, but you need to play it bigger if you want a real high.
I figured I had the kindness thing covered. I’ve been practicing spirituality for nearly as long as a radiologist. My friends joked that I had an unofficial Ph.D. in self-help. I ran a nonprofit, belonged to a philanthropic society, and donated to everyone's charities. I thought I was emotionally mature and spiritually evolved. Then my teacher Elizabeth asked me to leave sweet love notes to strangers.
Elizabeth’s instructions were clear. I was to write nice things to perfect strangers on pretty cards and include gift certificates or small sums of money. I was to anonymously drop these notes to unsuspecting humans three times a day for 31 days. Points for decorating them myself.
Her instruction woke my ticker tape voice, which was annoying because she was the reason why I was paying Elizabeth to have me do something so weird.
93 notes? What a load of crap.
If ticker tape were a movie character, she’d be the loud-mouthed bitch, the alpha female in a women’s prison, serving life for some gruesome felony.
She was stubborn and cunning, with a voluminous vocabulary and the tongue to use it. She didn’t care that I was a doctor, wife, and mother. To her, I was the world's worst specimen of humans.
You are such a weirdo for thinking you can be happy doing these silly classes. People will see you for who you are: a perimenopausal freak trying to climb out of depression. No one will appreciate your stupid gifts. Get a life! And lose some weight. That will make you happy.
I envisioned my gift-giving leading to my firing. "What were you thinking?” as my incredulous boss handed me my pink slip.
Elizabeth pointed out that these mental obstacles met the criteria for discomfort, boding well for the practice's success. My internal resistance was overwhelming, paralyzing me from leaving my first note until the second week when I found myself alone in the locker room at the yoga studio, 15 open gym bags resolutely giving me the evil eye.
A flier warning members to lock their belongings hung on the mirror as a thief had recently stolen from the premises. Her picture, captured by the security camera of a local liquor store, looked like a premonition. I pictured my wanted poster hung next to hers, except mine was stamped "weirdo" in big block letters.
I hastily threw my carefully decorated note, 10 dollar bill attached, in a bag just as its owner stepped out of the bathroom. I froze, shame climbing up the back of my neck and into my face as she read the note and shoved it back into her bag before rushing out to the studio.
To my horror, she and her friend had set themselves up near my mat. I strained to catch their conversation, adding eavesdropping to a humiliation I hadn't felt since my kindergarten teacher publicly retrieved a rotten milk carton from my desk, which I had been too ashamed to throw out.
She was animated. "I just can't believe this day! I mean, who gets love notes with cash in them? Especially since I have been feeling lonely of late. My luck is changing.; I know it!”
Her neighbor was incredulous but happy for her.
I lay there, trying unsuccessfully not to smile. It was my luck that was changing.
"Give what you would like to receive" became my motto. I printed out jokes and poems from the internet and stuffed them into employee lockers, in patients' waiting rooms, and left bouquets on cars at the grocery store. I savored the mix of generosity, serendipity, and not wanting to get caught. It was easy to abstain from take-out lunches and fancy coffees to afford this high.
My favorite drop was on an ambulance windshield outside the hospital where I worked. Because paramedics travel in pairs, I left two notes with enough cash for breakfast. Doing so erased the self-indulgent pity I habitually felt when I saw the empty ambulances outside the hospital at the end of a late shift.
Science reports that random acts of kindness change the mindset from self-absorption to the desire for others to be happy by engaging pro-social neural networks. It also increases the delicious I-feel-connected-to-others hormone, oxytocin, and the euphoric dopamine. “Helper’s high” is a solid antidote for self-absorbed loneliness and depression.
Giving replaced the nonstop narrative in my head with a palpable sense of peace in my body. It was the ultimate checkmate to my ticker-tape mind.
Later that month, my daughter's high school closed unexpectedly for COVID-19, with it the promise of senior week, prom, and graduation. As we lingered over breakfast, I offered my stationery kit to her friends as they tried to make sense of their new world.
Although skeptical, their reluctance was short-lived. Their carefully calligraphed letters and bubbly multi-colored drawings melted my skeptical heart. These kids were much closer to the connected state we experience as kids, where sending love to a stranger is a way of being and far from weird. With each card, their self-absorbed uncertainty diminished. They poured all their sweetness into the cards, losing themselves in their beautifully decorated and authentic notes.
As my daughter left the last letter on a minivan outside the children's museum that was closing for an indefinite period. “This is so weird, but I feel so happy!" she squealed, skipping to the next recipient.