My recent 46th birthday marked the 12-month completion of a very personal project I had commenced the previous year. When I turned 45 I took a group of my close girlfriends to dinner and had what I called a “celebration of friendship.” I was coming out the other end of a challenging time in my life and for the first time in a long while, I was feeling strong and optimistic about my future. As I sat around this table of 20 women, watching them laugh and enjoy each other’s company, I couldn’t help but experience such gratitude for the kindness that each of them had brought into my life at some point. I felt so fortunate to be in the position I was, but also determined to never lose sight of where I had just come from.
The Dalai Lama once said, “Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” During the difficult period of my life I leant strongly on the philosophy of Buddhism. Among the many lessons I learnt is that the gift of giving not only brings so much satisfaction and happiness to the giver, but it also had the ability to create a ripple effect. I learnt that one small act of kindness could mean so much to so many.
And so I started a twelve-month project with myself. I decided that for every week for 12 months, I would pick up the bill for someone at a coffee shop and leave before they knew.
This simple act was something I really looked forward to and became so much more than just shouting someone a meal or coffee. For me it was a study in human nature, a break from technology and an opportunity to let someone know that they have been seen. In this fast paced life of faceless and nameless people, I wanted them to know that of all the people in the restaurant, they were noticed.
I often did this at the same coffee shop where the owner knew me and knew the drill. Don’t ask any questions, don’t ever let them know who I am and don’t tell them until I have left. He would just laugh and shake his head, but the smile on his face and the knowledge that he too was part of this act of kindness added to the experience.
In order to choose who would be the recipient I spent a lot of time studying people, their body language and their actions. One time it was an exhausted mum whose child had spilt her baby chino all over the table and I recognized that fine line between her calm demeanor and an almighty melt-down. Or the young man who picked up the menu, his eyes immediately darting to the right of the page checking out the prices before reading what was on offer. There was a sweet elderly man who would wipe his upper lip with his handkerchief after every sip of his cappuccino. He sat alone starring out into the park across the road.
Each one of these people had their own story to tell and each one deserved to be seen and validated.
One Saturday I shared with my daughters what I had been doing and their response was priceless. “Wait, what do you mean,” asked my older daughter confused, “you just paid for that guys meal?” “Yes, and I have been doing this for some time because it makes me feel good,” I responded. Both girls laughed and laughed, not because they were surprised, but because in their words, “that is such a cool thing to do.”
And so it became a family project, but it was also our secret. We would go out for coffee or breakfast and decide together whom we would choose and why. The observations, the conversations and the link back to humanity were again, another wonderful aspect to this project. No longer would the girls be consumed with taking photos of their meals to upload to social media. Instead we talked. We talked about life, about struggles and why it is that some people find themselves in the positions they do. We talked about empathy, understanding and the need to educate ourselves. But most importantly, we talked about our social responsibility to help others when we can.
Our twelve-month project is now over and I have other projects I have chosen to focus on all with the common thread of giving back and helping others. 52 coffee’s have been given away and in that moment, 52 people have been reminded that there is kindness in the world. My hope is that may use that feeling and pay it forward to another.