There are few things in life as rewarding as the feeling you have immediately following an act of kindness. As I’ve grown and matured as a person, this feeling is something I aim to achieve more frequently. This might sound silly, but acts of kindness are something I really have to work to achieve. I admittely experience small amounts of social anxiety when interacting with people I don’t know. If you’re an introverted, work-from-home programmer, you can probably relate. Committing an act of kindness almost always involves some level of personal interaction, which I am typically most comfortable avoiding. I’m never mean to anyone, it’s just easier to stand in the corner and observe.
Today, an event occurred that really pushed the limits of my social comfort zone. This event was actually a carbon copy of the type of scenario socially anxious people irrationally fear. The event included yelling, confrontation, police officers, and being outside in sub-zero temperatures for a long period of time. But before I get to that, I want to write about the most fascinating conversation I’ve ever had.
The most fascinating conversation I’ve ever had
I took a trip to San Fransisco a few months ago. On the return flight from San Fransisco to Chicago, I was seated next to a woman from India and her son who was maybe around ten years old. I thought to myself “Fantastic. they probably don’t even speak my language, we can ignore each other in peace for the next four hours.” They indeed did not speak English. About an hour into the flight, the woman was attempting to purchase a snack for her son with cash. Cash is worthless at 30,000 feet and the flight attendant was having difficulty communicating this fact.
This went on for a period of time, so I got out my credit card and handed it to the flight attendant. The attendant smiled at me, declined my offer, and gave some Pringles to the kid for free. The woman recognized what had happened and we began making small talk mostly through hand gestures.
She did a spirit-finger type motion to ask me if the white ground below us was snow. When the captain notified us that we were approaching turbulence, she angled her arm downward to ask if we were going to be descending. I responded by shaking my head and bouncing up and down in my seat to let her know things might get bumpy. We did this for hours, and it was super fun.
Meanwhile, a couple behind us had their hands full with twin babies. Babies on airplanes are just the worst, right? By the end of this flight, I think every single person (myself included) within a 15 seat radius had assisted the couple by either holding a baby, or holding baby supplies. The babies didn’t make a single noise and you could feel kindness permeating from every person around me. I honestly wanted the flight to last a bit longer because I had never experienced so many genuinely nice strangers in such a small space. As we began our descent to O’Hare International Airport, the woman gave me a piece of gum. It was a fitting ending to a really enjoyable flight.
That day I realized, maybe situations similar to this plane ride would occur more frequently if I did more nice things. Perhaps, my own attitude is the only thing preventing me from always experiencing this kind of happiness. Mister Rodgers built a career on kindness and led, what I can only assume was, a very rewarding life. I don’t need to be Mister Rodgers, but why not try to be more like those we admire?
Back to the story with the cops
I live near Erie, Pennsylvania and the weather is bad sometimes. Really bad. Snow is mostly irrelevant to us until we have more than twelve inches in a short period of time. Natrually, roads are slippery and most people own all-wheel drive vehicles in this area.
I was returning home this morning after getting some McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches and a car behind me was following too closely. The roads were a bit slippery after an overnight storm that resulted in a few inches of accumulation. We were driving down a very straight road well below the speed limit due to the road conditions. I began to slow down to turn onto the road where my house is located. Being generally aware of my surroundings while driving, I looked in the mirror to see how my tailgater was handling the decrease in speed. I don’t want to be rear-ended by a person following too closely if they are unable to stop.
The car fish-tailed to one side of the road, and then to the other side of the road, and landed nose-first in the ditch. It wasn’t a hard crash, so I assumed the driver was OK, but I figured I would offer my assistance. I have a pickup truck with rope. Maybe I can pull the car out and send the driver on with her day. I approached the car and immediately decided that wasn’t going to happen. The ditch was much deeper than I originally thought, and the car had too much damage. This one needed a wrecker and this was a person who probably didn’t deserve any help. She rolled down her window and began shouting at me.
“WHAT WERE YOU THINKING YOU MORON, YOU DIDN’T EVEN USE YOUR TURN SIGNAL!”
I wasn’t expecting that. My face begins to twitch for some reason. Maybe because of the cold, maybe because of the unexpected rudeness, or maybe I was feeling angry. Tailgaters are a mennace to society afterall, and I don’t appreciate being blamed for their recklessness. Where I come from, if you tailgate someone and you end up in a ditch, you are responsible. Insurance companies and the state of Pennsylvania agree with me.
I calmly ask the driver if she was OK, and if there was anything I could do to help. She continued to berate me and carry on, blaming the entire universe (but mostly me) for what happened. Staying calm the entire time, I said “OK, well I’m here to help you in any way I can, but if you’re going to be rude, I’m going home.”
“NO! YOU CANNOT DO THAT. YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE AND I AM CALLING THE COPS.”
She demands my insurance information, but I decline. We’ll wait for the police to arrive.
She calls some family members and informs them she has been in an “accident” as if more than one vehicle was included in her misfortune. We stand next to the wreckage in awkward silence for about 3 minutes in sub-zero temperatures and then begin to make small talk. She tells me I am allowed to sit in my truck as long as I don’t “drive off”.
There’s no way in hell I’m driving off at this point because this person is not well-grounded and I don’t want her to spin this situation into some kind of hit and run accident. I ignore her and stare off into the distance remembering days when I used to do the same thing with an ex-girlfriend. The police finally arrive around 5 minutes later.
She begins telling her side of the story as the officer inspects her tire tracks leading into the ditch. He’s seen this 600 times. They separate us and get statements. The officer asks me if I used my turn signal. I don’t remember if I did or not and he tells me it doesn’t matter, she was obviously following too closely. We made a bit of small talk, he thanked me for sticking around, and I go home.
This was almost everything that an introverted, socially anxious person fears. Ignoring the situation and going straight home would have been so much easier. Additionally, my Egg McMuffin wouldn’t have been cold by the time I was able to enjoy it.
So, here I am, writing this blog post, enjoying the remainder of my Saturday. The mean-spirited lady might be home by now, and some insurance company has already cranked up her premium. This wasn’t a possitive experience for anyone, but it could have been so much better. What have we learned? People are complicated, I guess.
In retrospect, my flight from San Fransisco was just awesome and everyone was happy because the babies weren’t crying. Some people are terrible and some people are amazing. However, kindness is rewarding and I encourage the socially anxious introverts of the world to give it a shot. Even if things go terribly, you’ll still end up with an interesting story.