A blog I happily wrote for Tune In Not Out. Their website also has a cool video on “the breakfast club” which I recommend viewing if you have a few minutes!
What’s the best thing you’ve ever spent five bucks on?
There are a couple of things that spring to mind when I ask myself that. Once, I beat that diabolically rigged arcade game “Stackers” and won an iPod for $5. Another time I found a bunch of rare Animorph books at a library book sale (my favourite book series from when I was younger). But one memory trumps all of the others, hands down: when I was twelve, I walked past a lady in the train station who was singing “My Heart Will Go On”. I didn’t have any loose coins, and the only money I had was a $5 note which I had carefully hoarded to spend on ice cream at school. After a moment of agonising deliberation, I decided that I wanted to acknowledge the beauty of her singing more than I wanted the ice cream, so I put the money in her hat. In return, she gave me a smile which I will never forget for as long as I live.
Psychologists conducted an experiment where they gave $100 to every person in their study group. Half of those people were instructed to spend the money on themselves, buying whatever they wanted with it. The other half were told to spend the money on someone else in the form of a thoughtful gift. When the two groups had spent their money, they came back and explored their responses to it. The results discovered that the people who had spent the money on someone else were many times happier than the people who had spent in on themselves.
Why is that? Well, psychologists and philosophers can theorise about it all day long. They might say it’s because we feel guilty that other people are less fortunate than we are. Perhaps it’s because of enlightened self-interest, where the individual believes that helping others will raise their esteem in the eyes of others. But if you ask me, there’s a blaringly obvious reason to be charitable. It’s not because someone will give you a gold star for it, because it makes you feel good (though it feels amazing) or because it will improve your image; it’s because all human beings are fundamentally like you. Just in the same way you avoid pain and enjoy pleasure, nobody wants to be cold or hungry or impoverished. The closer you look at other people, the more you see yourself in them. And perhaps, if your heart is very open, you might even come to the belief that all life is connected. That by changing the life of one person, you change the life of all people everywhere in subtle but significant ways. And if you can recognise that much, then you might be inspired to help other people for no other reason than because you love them, and you don’t want them to suffer when there’s something you can do to help. That is the heart of charity: love.
It’s all very easy to talk about theoretically, but going out of your way for the benefit of other people isn’t easy to do- it takes an absolutely huge leap to see yourself in others, and to see others in yourself. All things considered, it’s pretty bloody scary. I like to think I’m a pretty nice guy, but it doesn’t stop me from being terrified of confrontations and uncomfortable around strangers. But one morning as I was walking through the city centre, I saw a man sitting on the sidewalk collecting change from passersby. Almost everyone ignored him, and in most cases, I would have too. But as I passed, I forced myself to look him in the eye and recognise him as a human being. In that glance, I noticed that despite the freezing weather, he was only wearing a singlet and a light shirt as he hugged his knees. I kept walking, glad that I had the courage to at least acknowledge him. But as I moved further on, my heart tugged a little and I turned around to watch him for a while. He was just sitting there as important-looking people in business suits strode past without a care in the world, and something in me felt compelled to reach out and help this man. There wasn’t much I could do, but perhaps that “not much” would be “just enough”. I made myself walk back to him, my heart pounding, and I asked him if I could buy him a hot drink. He gratefully accepted, so I bought a large coffee for $4.70 and gave it to him so he could keep warm on a cold day. And I felt so, so joyful at that singular act of kindness I had performed despite my instincts of self-preservation. I had just been paid so it didn’t cost me very much, but it made a huge difference to both his day and mine. On the way home I vibrated with joy, bouncing off the walls and saying “Good morning!” to everyone I met.
There’s nothing I can do or say that will make you believe me, so please let me urge you: try it yourself. The next time you see someone collecting money for a cause you support, rustle up some change for them, even if it means going without a soft drink on the way home. The next time you see someone struggling with their study, even if you don’t like them, set some time apart during lunch or after school to share a little of your knowledge with them. The next time you see someone wearing something beautiful, tell them so! Kindness is free, but it makes a huge difference in someone’s day. If you make a special effort to compliment someone (or another worthy act of kindness) every day, I promise you from the very bottom of my heart, it will change your life for the better.
Oh, and your hair looks amazing by the way.