Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Is kindness catching? We can only hope so -- Nov. 27, 2013, column


It’s not just a bumper strip slogan. Some Americans actually do practice random acts of kindness.

At fast food restaurants around the country, some customers are paying for the orders placed by strangers in the next car.

“Drive-through generosity is happening across America and parts of Canada, sometimes resulting in unbroken chains of hundreds of cars paying in turn for the person behind them,” Kate Murphy reported last month in The New York Times.

“We really don’t know why it’s happening but if I had to guess, I’d say there is just a lot of stuff going on in the country that people find discouraging,” Mark Moraitakis, director of hospitality at Chick-fil-A, told Murphy, adding, “Paying it forward is a way to counteract that.”

“Pay it forward” refers to repaying a kindness by doing something kind for another person.  The concept was popularized by a 1999 novel by Catherine Hyde Ryan and movie starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. A high school teacher challenges his students to change the world. One boy helps three people and asks each of them to help three more people…You see where this is going.

Moraitakis is onto something.  People like helping others – on their own terms. Compulsory kindness doesn’t cut it.

You don’t see many people paying it forward in Washington, a city famous for pay backs. But when legendary comedian Carol Burnett came to town last month to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, she showed how it’s done.

Burnett asked that Rosemary Watson, a comedic newcomer who does dead-on impersonations of Hillary Clinton and other prominent female politicians, be given the chance to perform at the Kennedy Center awards gala.  The two had never met. Watson had written Burnett a fan letter, and Burnett had watched Watson’s videos on YouTube. Impressed, she wanted to give a boost to the younger woman’s career.    

“The thing is, you pay it forward,” Burnett said.”Because when I got started, somebody gave me a break when I was 21 years old, and I wanted to go to New York.”

Paying it forward can be as simple as letting someone go ahead in line at the grocery store. Many people pay it forward with their time. It turns out there are special benefits for people who volunteer.

The December issue of Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine touts “Four Amazing Health Benefits of Helping Others.”  Studies show that volunteers may live longer, be happier, manage their pain better and lower their blood pressure more than non-volunteers.

Many people prefer to pay it forward with cash. Individual charitable giving rose almost 4 percent last year but still lags its pre-recession peak. This is one area where young people are a shining example.

Nine of 10 kids between the ages of 8 and 19 give to charity, according to a recent study by the Women’s Philanthropic Institute at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Parents, take note:  Moms and dads who talk to their children about giving to charity significantly increase the likelihood that the children will give. Talking may be more influential than parental role-modeling of charitable giving, the report says.

We all have a chance to pay it forward on Giving Tuesday -- the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. It’s a day to give back at the start of the holiday season, after our two biggest days of getting, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Giving Tuesday was created last year by Henry Timms of the 92nd Street Y, a cultural and community nonprofit center in New York City.  He’s the son of one of my closest friends, but I’d be writing about this brilliant project anyway.

In its first year, Giving Tuesday raised $10 million for more than 2,500 nonprofit groups. More groups are participating this year. Giving Tuesday doesn’t collect the money. Its genius is that it encourages each person to choose a favorite charity and publicize the choice on social media.

If you’re interested in paying it forward, join the movement. It might make you feel as good as those you help.  

©2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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