Recently I was in the middle of harvesting peaches from the gully that splits our property when a friend called and asked me to lend her my bread pans. Right then. While I was prepping for the farmer’s market, with a firm deadline three hours away.
You should know that to get to the best peaches, I had to hike down the mountain, climb over a few boulders, and duck beneath scratchy vines.
But this woman was about to bake a triple batch of banana bread and needed four more pans. The batter was already sitting in the bowl.
More important, she is lonely and isolated. Her husband is much older and in poor health. Her life revolves around his needs. She needs someone to talk to. She needs someone to listen to her with attention and warmth (neither of which are forthcoming from her spouse).
At moments like this when I feel massively inconvenienced by being nice to someone, I think of the action as making a deposit in what I call the “kindness bank.”
This is the imaginary account I keep in my head of things I do that help someone, regardless of the cost to me. The kindness bank is sweetness to another person that I would often rather not do, but that is a good thing to do even so.
Thinking of it this way encourages me to be generous with my time. It might be taking an hour for a conversation. It might be an anonymous act of help, such as picking up someone’s garbage that’s been knocked over.
These acts of kindness have become easier for me since I began thinking of them as going into the kindness bank, where deposits counterbalance the enormous amount of goodness other people have bestowed on me.
So despite being insanely busy, I told her I would bring her the pans but that I couldn’t stay to visit. I also reminded her that I had to finish the harvest in time for my son to go to the market, and that I was in work clothes. In other words, covered in dirt from my hat to face to arms to legs to feet.
Now we get to part two of this story.
I rushed back to the house, washed my hands so I wouldn’t muck up the pans, and dashed to her house. I knocked on the door and said I couldn’t come in because I was dirty and in a hurry. She thanked me and asked me to come in and have a cool drink with her.
Insisted I come in and have a cool drink, based on the fact that I looked terribly hot and tired.
To myself I thought, “Okay, another deposit in the kindness bank.” I agreed but said it had to be quick. Then, in short order, she:
- Told me I didn’t need to take off my boots, but why didn’t I get new ones, as these were falling apart and they were such a mess? (Hel-lllooo, if I could afford new boots, I would be wearing new boots!)
- Declared I was filthy and insisted I wash my face with a “refreshing cold cloth.” Which she handed me, so I had to do it.
- Told me I was working too hard and needed to relax.
- Insisted I sit on their nice leather couch to chat, so I perched on the edge trying not to stain it.
- Told me a lady never went out in public without a shower and clean clothes.
- Wanted to talk leisurely about everything that had happened to her in the last week.
Inside, I was growling. The kindness bank was bursting out the seams. I knew she was unaware that she was pushing my buttons and setting off my emotional triggers. But that didn’t keep me from muttering to myself that I was just taking time to be nice to her, for God’s sake. Why pour me a tall glass of lemonade when I’d made it clear I had no time for it? Why insult me for being dirty when I’d told her I was in my work clothes?
Why wasn’t she aware of my time, my feelings, my work that needed to be done by a certain time? I struggled not to be cranky with her. I made my voice calm and kept my snapping turtle thoughts to myself.
As I sat there, guzzling my lemonade and forcing myself to listen to her with a smile on my face and encouraging words on my lips, I suddenly realized that from her vantage point, she was the one being nice.
She was making deposits in her kindness bank by offering refreshments, a cool cloth to help clean me up, well-intended advice about working too hard, washing up before going out, and how to be a presentable lady. She truly meant well.
Realizing this helped me regain my calm. I understood that deposits in the kindness bank get instantly canceled if you resent the person you’re doing a nicety for. And that making room for other people to be kind to me—even if it doesn’t exactly fit my needs—is just as important as offering kindness to them. It’s like earning interest on the original deposit.
In my case, the interest turned out to be a loaf of banana bread.
try this: Come up with your own version of the kindness bank, or adopt mine.
The next time you recognize that someone needs your help when it’s inconvenient to give it, take the time anyway. Let go of any grumpiness about the help, and let go of any expectations of whether the person will appreciate the help the way you’d like them to.
Just give freely, feel good about it, and know that someday soon, kindness will come back to you.
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Marcy McDonald is the creator of the Happiness Builder Program, more than 70 exercises to help you change your perspective so you can change your life.