I turned 55 a couple of weeks ago. My personal assistant, Ellie, who is a former college student of mine, kept asking me what I wanted for my birthday. I really didn't know. At a certain point in life, your hunger for material things really begins to dissipate, and I really didn't want anything in particular except to enjoy a day of quiet celebration, joyful connection, and peace of mind.
About a week before my birthday, an idea came to me during my meditation. I had asked God to reveal to me what kind of gift I could ask for that would be of greatest service to me and to others (for the highest good of all concerned).
When the idea came, I knew it was exactly what I needed to request, and it would allow my birthday to be celebrated and commemorated in an unusual fashion, one that would definitely inspire positive action, and maybe even have an impact that would last more than a day.
There is a Native American tradition called the giveaway, in which the birthday celebrant actually gives the gifts to his or her guests. This is a recognition of the joy of giving, and an expression of one’s gratitude for living for yet another year.
My idea took this concept a bit further. When I next met with Ellie, I said to her, ‘I know exactly what I want for my birthday this year. I want you to mobilize your friends to create 55 acts of kindness on my behalf: one for each year of my life thus far. The one rule for the acts is that the recipient must not know who the person is who is gifting them, so that they experience a kind act bestowed by a benevolent stranger.’
I also told her that I wanted her to keep a record of what was done so that I could savor it all sometime the week after my actual birthday (there was not quite enough time available for her to get it all done by January 27th).
Ellie, who is a marvelous organizer and motivator, cheerfully accepted the challenge and was on her way.
A few days ago, Ellie and I sat down to share what happened as a result of my birthday challenge. She sat across from me and began to read a 5 page letter describing each of the 55 acts. (By the time this Sunday’s gathering occurs, I will have heard about all 55, because we didn’t’t have enough time that day and were scheduled to meet again on Saturday.)
During this conversation she got through the first 20 - more than enough to crack my heart open and let me know that I needed to have the kleenex ready at hand when she read the rest of the letter to me.
So what is the point of all this, the moral of the story? As I sat in my office listening to Ellie read the first part of this letter, I was struck by the power of a single idea to create a tangible positive difference in the lives of others.
I could see and hear and feel in my imagination the person who was waiting in line at the fast food restaurant who discovered that their meal had been paid for by a stranger.
I could feel the gratitude in the heart of the person who walked back to their car at the Douglass loop to discover that the parking meter had been paid.
I could almost reach out and feel the excitement of the doctor’s assistant who found an envelope on her desk containing an anonymous gift to cover the next patient’s copay.
As Ellie read each one of these acts out loud to me, I had this visceral feeling of an invisible yet tangible connection with every single person who was touched by this simple idea.
It was as though I finally understood, on a whole new level, the power of an idea , an idea that began as a simple question - a request to my Inner Source to help me figure out what the best possible gift might be — a gift that would touch the lives of more than me - that might change the world in some small way.
This invisible, intangible thought — translated into action — touched the lives of at least 100 people in less than a week. I started expanding my thinking — how could I expand this idea so that more and more people might catch the astonishing power of simply doing something kind for another human being?
As I sat there listening to Ellie read, a new idea came into my awareness. What if I could inspire others to celebrate their birthdays in this way? Perhaps I could start a new tradition, one that would multiply kindness and compassion and joy and love in exponential ways.
Then I thought, how else might I inspire acts of kindness? I went to the randomactsofkindness.com website, which is the ultimate repository for ideas and resources for spreading kindness, and I discovered RAKWEEK 2015 — a week long initiative with the goal of inspiring 100,000 acts of kindness between February 9-15 2015. Just in time for this reflection and our gathering.
So, my invitation to you is this: what might you do to catalyze kindness and compassion within your circle of influence? How might you express the love and mercy of God by serving and loving others in this way? How do acts of kindness express the living, loving presence of God in, as and through us? What if you decided that you were going to inspire one act of kindness for every year of your life thus far? Where would you start?
And perhaps the most important point of all is this: everything that I’ve shared with you in this brief reflection began with a single question: ‘What do you want for your birthday?’, which I translated into a direct request to God.
I asked ’what gift would be of greatest service?’
And this simple question changed everything.
Harry Pickens is a spiritually inspired American jazz pianist and a blessing to the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.. This was reprinted with his permission.