September 25, 2008

Elizabeth Willse's Random Act of Kindness

The subway seems an especially strange place for random acts of kindness. Strangers isolated in their own thoughts, the linear stresses of getting somewhere by a certain time. Even asking for directions, or maybe reaching out to say "what an adorable baby," or "hey, I liked that book too," could be an intrusion. It's easy to get shy in the seemingly unbreakable silence of strangers.

On September 11th, 2003, I got on the subway with a bag full of copies of Speaker For the Dead, by Orson Scott Card, a novel I've read many times since my teens. It has an elegant view of mourning and commemorating death, by speaking the truth about a person's life and connection to the community. Not just the nice truths- sometimes the painful ones that will help those left behind heal. It's thoughtful science fiction that raises questions about ethics, anthropology, humanness and communication, spiritual goals and memorial practices. It is one of the places I seek perspective when I'm overwhelmed.

When I reached my stop that day, I pulled a book from my bag, and left it on the seat next to me. "Hey," said someone. "You left your book." As the doors closed, I called over my shoulder. "I know. Take it." I hope he did.

I had stuck a note that said "Free Book! Take Me!" to each book I left behind that day. On the inside cover, I wrote a note that read "I am sharing my favorite book with you. Please take it, read it, think it over, and pass it along." and then signed my name and the date. I left one on the subway heading to work. I left one at the coffee shop. I think I left one in Grand Central somewhere, and handed one to a friend at the gym. Stopped to meet friends, and handed one to an acquaintance. I ended my night at a blues club downtown, and left the last copy on a table.

I wondered who would take the books I left behind. Would anyone read the one I'd left in Grand Central, or would it be treated warily as a "suspicious package?" Handing copies to friends felt like I was cheating. Leaving paperbacks without knowing who would read them was a truly random act. Doing it without knowing if or how it would be understood was about my own efforts to heal myself, and maybe others, without being poised to receive gratitude.

Yes, leaving books behind with only a note was easier than interrupting the silence between strangers. Maybe it would have been more courageous to reach out and say "here- I want to share this." It would take trust and openness, from the receiver and the giver. With conversation, the act of kindness would become more connected and less random. It makes me wonder: is there even such a thing as a random act of kindness, or are there only acts of trust?

What do you think?

Written by Elizabeth Willse, freelance writer, book reviewer and volunteer blogger with Literacy ‘n’ Poverty Project. You can visit her blog at or email with your questions.


Marina said...

I think that kindness is an inherent trait of mankind, it's the feeling that leads to the act of kindness and i believe it exists in everybody, waiting to be discovered. Yes, trust nowadays is an integral component of our interaction with others, but such a random act can only be out of kindness. Trust entails logic and rationalization of things, kindness only needs a sparking moment. Because it comes from within you, you don't analyze it, or try to explain it, it just happens. Do you care about the outcome? Probably yes, you want it to have an impact on someone's life, otherwise why bother? But, still, even if it doesn't have the results you seek, i think just the energy of such an act that releases into the atmosphere, cannot go unnoticed. I don't think this answers your query but I really enjoyed reading your post.

Melinda said...

I absolutely love the idea of leaving favorite books along our path for others to read and then pass along. What a wonderfully inspiring story.

I really enjoyed reading your post.


network marketing company said...

well pay it forward i really believe in this mantra

roy nelson said...

very interesting post.
lovely idea with the books.

and there are only acts of trust.
and trust springs from Love.

love+light to you+yours

Literacy 'n' Poverty Project said...

Thanks for your comments everyone. This was a terrific random act of kindness/trust!

Thank you Elizabeth for your contribution to the greater good!

"Be the change you want to see in the world."

Anonymous said...

i would like to recommend this video about Ethiopia and how they were going "green" and the great impact of doing so.


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