I was at the market not too long ago, when a woman in line dropped a box of blueberries. I watched as they went everywhere, and in every possible direction. The woman was old—too old for picking blueberries up off the floor. Embarrassed, she shouted out for help in this weak, trembling sort of voice. Stumbling over the words, “Cleanup—I need a cleanup!” The rest of us are watching, waiting for someone to intervene, or for a young clerk in their yellow safety vest to come along with a broom and a wet floor sign.
She was close to tears. How could she not be? All of us standing there, still staring. “Oh, watch out,” we say, as somebody walks by. Really, it’s only been a minute, but it feels like an eternity. In my head, I tell myself to help her, then I tell myself that someone else will. I go back and forth with indecision. Italian for dinner—or maybe sushi? White shirt or the blue? Do I really need this bag of chips?
I put down my basket and start picking up the blueberries. My hand was quickly overfilling with them—they were spilling out and back onto the floor. “Here, use this,” someone says, handing me the empty box.
Thinking on it later, I realized that those of us who ended up gathering the blueberries weren’t just helping—we were entering into a social contract. Inadvertently, we were making the decision to carry some of her embarrassment—her mortification over not only dropping the blueberries, but also her inability to then clean them up. Before helping her, I had to consider my own social contract—kneeling down to pick up blueberries while everyone around me stared. By choosing to intervene, I took on some of that discomfort. As did the woman who handed me the empty basket, and anyone else that helped.
An act of kindness is never just a simple thing. There are incredibly complex layers of human interaction that are either made better or made worse by the choices we make. By choosing to act kindly, we are indirectly intervening in one another’s social relationships. Acting generously with one another has enormous implications for the emotional and social health of our societies. If we can recognize the significant and often profound impact of a kind gesture, we can begin igniting pockets of our communities for a great good.