Improvising Kindness

I am in a small city in the Upper Midwest to deliver several keynotes for health care professionals. The morning after my arrival, I am taking an early morning walk along the banks of the Missouri River. The geese are strutting around the park in pairs, uttering occasional guttural honks. The gulls are arguing out on the sand bar. The spring breeze still has enough winter in it to pink my cheeks.

I pick up a few pieces of trash along the way, dropping McDonald’s cups and beer cans into the trash barrels along the riverfront. I see a piece of paper a short way’s off and go to pick it up. As I read it over, I recognize that it is a notice from a collection agency.

The man to whom it is addressed is being strongly urged to pay $33.33 to a local heating and cooling company. I stand there, considering the story behind this piece of paper. What is happening in this man’s life that a $33 bill goes to collections? What was it that the heating company repaired for him and when? Did he know he wasn’t good for the money then or did something happen in the intervening months?

I realize suddenly that his story has now entered mine. I tuck the damp, slightly muddy paper into my pocket and return to my hotel room.

Once business hours begin, I call the heating and cooling company.

“Good morning,” I say to the woman who answers. “I’m calling with a rather strange request. I’d like to pay a past-due bill on condition that you don’t reveal my name to the recipient.”

There’s a long, long pause and then the woman bursts out in surprised laughter. “Well, that is justthe nicest thing. I sure wish there were more people like you in the world!”

I give her my credit card info, wish her a good day and hang up.

For the rest of the day, I remember that gesture with a deep shiver of joy. I incorporate the story into my two presentations that day. It fits perfectly into the section where I’m talking about how practicing kindness can help sustain our energy and humanity in the midst of chaos.

Now, I have no idea what the effects of my gesture will have on this stranger’s life. Will he even notice that his bill is paid? If he is getting a lot of collections calls, will he notice the absence of this one? Whatever crisis he is facing – in health, finances, family or addiction – will this little gift even matter to him? I will never the know the answer to these questions.

I do know this.

Offering an anonymous gift to a stranger brought healing to my own heart. It reanimated my connection to my fellow human beings, even the ones I will never meet. In the days since, I find myself sending prayers to the man as I swim my laps or drive across the prairie.

I wish him well.

About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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6 Responses to Improvising Kindness

  1. laura Kinkead says:

    Making me smile this morning, woman of wisdom and big heart!

  2. Maureen says:

    When I finished reading this, your name began rolling out of me as a prayer over and over – maybe your goodness continuing to expand the universe and make it a better place, as you always do. It continues….love love.

  3. Michelle Farinella says:

    Healing, Connection, and Kindness. Thank you

  4. I am weeping as I type this; your little vignette has brought me to happy tears. Carry on, Dear Barbara.

  5. Ross McAfee (US) says:

    A fine Friday morning 2 U from Tyrone! Well, from Ross in Tyrone.

    This is a belated reply to your excellent post below.

    I wanted you to know what a GREAT story it is and what incredible modeling you’re doing in this story for the rest of us. So inspiring and motivational. Thank you.

    Oh, and I’m proud to be YOUR brother and I love you.

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