How To Change The World

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It can be as close as next door. 

On October 1, 2017, Steven Paddock had a psychotic break in Las Vegas and unleashed a string of bullets onto unsuspecting country music fans across the street from his hotel. No one saw it coming and no one knows why. Our world seems lost and out of control.

Ten years ago, I had an idea during a fabulous weekend retreat. The Walk To Emmaus. http://azemmaus.org/

On fire with a thousand grand ambitions when I got home, I started showering my children with affection, “Hannah, I made you some toast, my precious child of God.”

Hannah liked being showered with toast, and so I branched out and experimented with various cashiers in our neighborhood stores. I just said, “Hi” to them though. No toast. The feedback was instantaneous; my kids were surprised, “What happened to you?” And more than once at Wal-Mart, cashiers remarked, “Your kindness does not go unnoticed. It makes a difference. Thank you.” 

Yesterday, I watched Charlene, a cashier at my corner Albertsons calmly help a frustrated, elderly woman who had never been in an Albertsons. This woman, wearing a confusing outfit in which not one plaid article of clothing matched, was fixated on how to use the key pad to complete her transaction, while complaining on the illogical placement of everything in, not only this store, but in this state. 

“Where are you from?” Charlene quietly asked with a smile, but the mismatched woman couldn’t answer, the keypad was just too baffling. In what seemed like a generation went by, Charlene, smiling the entire time, got the elderly woman successfully on her way and was still nice to the next customer in her checkout line. I think this transaction would’ve aged me.

A study, that I had nothing to do with, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed when we act kindly toward one person, that person is much more likely to be kinder toward others in the future. The researchers played a game that rewarded greed, (cool??) and found that a single act of kindness could produce dozens more. If you’re nice to John in Round 1, he’d be more likely to be nice to Kristen in Round 2, and they both would be more likely to be nice in Round 3. It was a ripple effect of kindness. It starts as a single act, but it keeps spreading outward affecting so many more.

This other guy, Edward Lorenz, in a MIT study over 50 years ago, uncovered a kind of miracle about the way nature works: small changes can have large consequences. He discovered the “butterfly effect” when he suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings might ultimately cause a tornado.

Charlene is nice to the lost, mismatched, elderly woman who then is a little nicer in the next new store where she probably will be lost again. Charlene flapped her wings. 

We can change the world in our own neighborhoods one smile at a time. Maybe, one kindness has the power to stop a random act of violence for at least a second. I’ll bet Steven Paddock’s world did not shower him with toast, or smiles. 

Be the butterfly. 

“Hi” never started a war.

Just start next door. When was the last time you said hi to your neighbor?

 


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