Faith in Humanity: How to Bring People Closer, and Restore Kindness

By Leo Babauta

The other day I was at the DMV here on Guam, renewing my registration for both my vehicles. I got there early, as I hate lines, but realized that I forgot an important document.

Well, the woman at the DMV saved me about an hour’s worth of driving and waiting in line by paying me a kindness … she accepted my registration by interpreting the regulations in a favorable way.

And that kindness just made my day.

It’s amazing what a little kindness can do for you. I drove away from the DMV with a great feeling, with a love for humanity, with a desire to do good for others and pay her kindness forward.

I’ve since paid my debt of gratitude forward in a bunch of ways, but it’s gotten me thinking about kindness and humanity in a broader sense. I have an enormous faith in humanity … but I think we all need to work to bring kindness back to our modern society.

While running with my sister at the local track yesterday, we were talking about kindness and courtesy in our society. My sister, Katrina, has noticed that people are less courteous and more rude to each other nowadays. They don’t say simple things like “Thank you” or open doors for each other or even smile at strangers.

I’m not sure if things on this front have gotten worse in recent years, but if it has, I suspect the change isn’t in people, it’s in the loss of a sense of community. It’s that we don’t come together enough, and are separated from each other in many ways.

The Effect of Anonymity
What happens when people get in cars and then converge on the roads? For some reason, they become rude, inconsiderate jerks (for the most part). But if these same people were to meet face-to-face, and have to spend time together and get to know each other, they would most likely make an attempt at being nice, at the very least.

When we’re in cars, we can barely see the other drivers. We certainly don’t care what they think, and we know they don’t know who we are. Sure, some people are considerate drivers, but for the most part, people are aggressive and uncaring when they’re in their cars.

That’s the effect of anonymity.

When we actually get to know people, we usually act differently. We want to be seen as good in other people’s eyes (the social component of the human animal), and as such, we’ll usually go out of our way to be nice — if we interact with the person on a personal level, not an anonymous level.

Our Divided Society
As my sister Katrina pointed out, our society is changing in a number of ways … all of them in some way dividing us as individuals:

1. Less religious. A much smaller proportion of our population is religious these days, which means fewer people are going to church. This means they don’t get together in the same way they used to, praying, doing community projects, getting to know each other. Some people may think that’s a good thing, as they are against organized religion, but the truth is that there hasn’t been a strong unifying non-secular organization emerge to take the place that church used to take in our community and in our lives.

2. Television and other media. Much more of our time is spent indoors these days, watching TV, playing video games, playing or working on the Internet, watching movies, etc. This means we are separated from each other. We don’t get together as a community anymore, we don’t play outside as much (or if we do, it’s in individual ways for the most part), we don’t meet face-to-face.

3. Car society. In the days of yore, people used to walk on the streets. People would see each other on the streets and say hi, stop and chat. Kids used to play in the streets. But cars have overrun our streets, and they are no longer safe for kids or pedestrians or bikes. We are forced into cars, because there’s no better way to get around (for the most part — in some cities, mass transit is a viable alternative, but not where I live). And when we’re in cars, as I mentioned above, we are separated from our fellow human beings.

Amish Barn Raising
When I think about ways we can come together as a community, to interact in more personal and positive ways, I think of the Amish barn raising tradition. The community comes together to help a family … this is the kind of tradition where people help each other out, get to know each other, and bond.

I think about that, and I wonder if there are ways we could get the community together, helping each other out. There are already some of these kinds of activities, such as community cleanups, Habitat for Humanity, other charity organizations, and the like. These are amazing ways to bring people together, in a common cause of helping others.

I’d like to see more of these kinds of things. I don’t have the answers, but I do know that if we make an effort to organize ways to help each other out, and come together, our communities will be better off. People will get to know each other, and will be kinder to each other.

That’s my hope, at least.

My Faith in Humanity
Call me naive or hopelessly optimistic, but I have a very positive view of humanity. Sure, we see greed and rudeness and abuse and selfishness every day. But I believe that’s more a symptom of the systems in our society, rather than of an evil human race.

I have faith in humanity.

I often leave my car doors unlocked. I carry cash around, just ready for a mugger to take it from me. I give money to people who say they need it, if I have it, not worrying about whether they’ll spend it on food or drugs or whatever.

Recently a reader asked for a way to buy the Zen To Done ebook in some other way than PayPal. I didn’t have a good way to do that, so I emailed him the book and asked him to mail me a check — having faith that he’d do it. Not only did he mail me a check, but he added an extra $40 to the total, with a note that the extra money was for copies he planned to give to friends and for my hard work here at Zen Habits.

That guy made my day. He proved that my faith in humanity is justified. I keep his note in the book I’m reading as a bookmark, so that I see it several times a day.

You guys, the readers of Zen Habits, are incredibly giving, kind, encouraging, supportive, generous.

I meet people every day who are friendly, who do me kindnesses, who lift my spirits.

Humanity is a wonderful thing. People are amazing, beautiful creatures.

What we need are ways to bring out the best in people. To bring them together. To have them help each other, instead of trying to outdo each other.

We need freer systems, instead of the authoritarian ones that oppress us now. We need cooperative systems, instead of the competitive ones we have now. We need unifying systems, instead of the divisive ones that exist today.

We need change. And as Gandhi famously said, “We must be the change we want to see in the world.”

I hope to be that change. I hope you will too.

Pay It Forward, Zen Habits edition
So how can I start this change, in some small way, and have it have little ripples throughout the world?

There are so many ways, but I’m going to take a page from Oprah. She did a “Pay It Forward” episode where she gave 300 audience members $1,000 each, with a camcorder and a challenge to spend the money on charity or individuals in acts of kindness. (See also: Pay It Forward Foundation)

I do not have $1,000 to give away, let alone $300,000. So I ask myself, “Self, what do I have that I can give to people?” And self answered: you have an ebook, and you have blog traffic that you can use to help smaller bloggers. Neither of those are amazing gifts, but they’re small acts of kindness that I’d like to give away.

Here’s how I’ll do that:

1. Free ebooks. The first 30 people who comment on this post, asking for an ebook, will get a free Zen To Done ebook emailed to them. All you have to do, in the comment, is say that you promise to pay the gift forward with some act of kindness to another person (not a relative) in your community. The act can be small or big, and you don’t have to specify what it is. I will trust you to do it.

2. Link to your blog. I can’t link to every blogger in the world, but I would like to link to some who will return the favor with an act of kindness in the real world. All you have to do is write a post on your blog explaining what kind of kindness you’ll do to pay it forward, and link to this post. If your link doesn’t appear in the trackbacks section below (next to the comments), email me to let me know about your post (zenhabits at the gmail). If it appears in the trackbacks, I’ll see it, so don’t email me. In a few days, I will link up to all the bloggers who linked to me in a new post, called “The Bloggers of Kindness”. I can’t guarantee a lot of traffic, but it’s the best I can do.

3. Just be kind. If you aren’t a blogger or don’t need an ebook, you can still participate. If you read and enjoy this blog, consider Zen Habits and the time I spend on it my gift to you … and just pay it forward with an act of kindness in your community, to an individual or charity. And ask those people to pay it forward to others, and to continue that chain of kindness as far as possible.

Here’s Ben Franklin on this concept:

I do not pretend to give such a Sum; I only lend it to you. When you […] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.