My dinner companion tonight, Johnathan, has been reading my blog posts on kindness and he asked me the question, “Is it possible to be too kind?” I think he was concerned that we might be short-changing ourselves if we give too much to others. This is a legitimate worry for the very similar concept called “Pay It Forward,” where a person covers a debt for a previous kindness by paying an equivalent value to a third party not involved in the original transaction. In this type of economic transaction it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to determine the comparative value of the first transaction to the second one. The recipient of the gift has no idea what the original value being repaid actually is and so any monetary or other value received is a pure bonus for him. The only person who can make the value judgment is the middleman purveyor of the gift because he is the only one who has any conception of the value of the two transactions. In these Pay-It-Forward transactions it is something inherent in the integrity of this middle-person that determines the comparative value of the two gifts, the received one and the given one. A person with little integrity would simply pocket the value of the gift he received and ignore the implied social contract of the request to Pay Forward the value received. Who’s to know, and perhaps, who’s to care. After all no one person in all humanity is expecting a stranger to simply walk up and give a substantial gift with no hope of any type of recompense and walk away.
The Kindness Project is quite different because the physical gift or other social gift is vanishingly small; it should be so small that even a thank you isn’t necessary. Because the gift is small, there isn’t an economic transaction implied and therefore no expected return for the gift. For example, perhaps you give a tiny gift, say a small flower, to a person on the street, and say, “This flower is for you, it is a gift, you owe me absolutely nothing. Do with it as you wish, perhaps pass it on to another person as a free gift.” Walk away and don’t look back. The transaction is complete and they owe you nothing, except perhaps to pass the flower on to another person, but even that is their option.
Now Johnathan’s question can be applied to this event. “Is it possible to be too kind?” The economic cost was negligible, the time of the transaction was only a few seconds, and perhaps someone gave us the flower to begin with which we now have enjoyed for a few moments, and now we have the pleasure of giving to someone else. The first time this happens it may set our curiosity to spinning, but after it has happened several times, perhaps even routinely at public festivals, it becomes a little pleasure. And when we walk down the street and see yet another person walking along with that flower or perhaps another one, we will feel a moment of friendly comradeship. Our day and life has been made just a little bit better and so has that other person’s, and it cost almost nothing. Everyone benefits.
The greatest benefit will be our habit of watching for opportunities for doing a little kindness to other people, and that will become a habit of being kind to our own selves.