The Sensitive Subject…of Kindness

When Daegan and I started the 500 Kindnesses project back in late 2011, in my mind I thought its purpose was to help fight a trend I saw. Namely, I felt that the world was becoming less and less kind and people needed to do more good things for one another. Success, I thought, would be if over 500 different people pledged to do acts of kindness in support of our bike ride. I set up a website and form for people to submit their “pledge”, saying who they were, where they were from and the act of kindness they were going to do. As pledges would come in I’d share them on the website.

However, after an initial surge brought on by Sage’s birthday gift for me, there wasn’t much activity no matter how much activity no matter how much I promoted it on social media. Eventually, an answer arrived in one friend’s comment:

“I’m not participating because it feels weird. I do acts of kindness but it feels like bragging to talk about it and have it on your website.”

That day I updated the form and website. From then on the form was anonymous. No name or email address was required, just a simple “What are you going to do?” and a submit button. The form did provide an IP address for the person submitting so I could give a general indication of where they were from and share, for example, that something came in from Belgium or Texas but nothing more.

The submission rate went up. Still some said they felt like they were bragging but in the end we not only got to our target of over 500, we went over 1,000.

During the project I connected with others with kindness-related projects and we talked about the subject of sharing versus bragging. Even as they were doing great work they felt reluctant to share, even as they were encouraging others to participate because it felt like bragging. In one chat session I told them about my own experience.

As I mentioned, 500 Kindnesses was created under the premise that the world was becoming less kind and we needed to do something. However, once the pledges started coming in, sometimes several a day, and others sent news stories of kindness, that attitude changed. There is so much kindness happening in the world every single day. But many just aren’t talking about it. However, once I started reading and hearing about it, two things happened. My attitude about the world and who I shared it with changed dramatically. My cynicism dramatically dropped. Every day the top news stories are about 90% or more stories of tragedy. If that’s the only input we get, that’s the world we think we are living in.

The other thing that happened is that I was inspired to do even more kind things. Kindness was on the top of my mind and so, when an opportunity presented itself, a kind reaction became more the default.

So, I say, sharing the good we do in the world, in a humble way, is important. It shows people that good is happening in the world, and more importantly, it shows that we can do good things.


One illustration of how learning about kindness happening around us came to me this weekend. As many of you know, I work with a local organization called Bike Brigade, a group that pairs cyclists with organizations that can benefit from their help. Whether it’s distributing food to those in need or marshalling at protests to keep demonstrators safe from traffic and others, the idea is simple: several humans can use their bikes to help others in the community.

This week a call went out to ask for help with a delivery project and I signed up immediately.

Sunday after Hindi class, I put on my warm clothes (it was -3C outside!), hooked up my trailer and rode about fifteen minutes to meet one of the organizers for Twelve Donations, an organization that supports the menstrual health of BIPOC, LGBTQ+, those from marginalized groups, and anyone who is experiencing a barrier to safe menstrual products. So far they’ve managed to over 100,000 products in just their first year. When I arrived at the highrise building we were to meet at, a man came out with three medium sized boxes that fit perfectly inside my trailer. In each was approximately 250 pads and tampons of assorted types to meet as many potential needs as possible.

On each box, a destination was written. The first was less than a kilometre away:

Recently an initiative is catching on in Toronto – that of the “Community Fridge”. There has always been need in the city but since the pandemic the situation has become more desperate. And so, in addition to the usual aid organizations and food banks, these small fridges, filled entirely by donation, help others not just with food but other needs.

So this fridge represents not only the host store’s kindness to have it outside, but those in the neighbourhood who bring things by to keep it stocked. I unpacked one box in to the bin next to the fridge and got back on my bike. The next destination was on the other side of town about half an hour’s ride away.

This fridge, in the neighbourhood of Parkdale was a large commercial model and it was very well stocked.

This one was very well stocked. Not only does it represent the work of the Community Fridge Project’s organizers (Instgram here), it shows how so many other people are stepping up and helping. As Jalil, one of the organizers said in the article:

Jalil: I was at the fridge around 1 p.m. the other day to take a photo for our community fridge Instagram account, and by 4 p.m. someone had sent me another photo of the contents—a lot of the food that was there earlier was gone and had already been replaced by newer stuff. There have been a couple of times when Julian has come by in the morning and noticed the fridge was empty, but it’s usually filled back up again by noon. Because of the shame that’s attached to food insecurity, a lot of people come to take food at night, when they won’t be seen.”

And this has been true throughout the city. People want to help and when they’re given a way to do it, they do. As much as anyone might read a news story of the latest atrocity and say “See? This is just how people are.” I can also look at this and say “See? This is how people are.”

As I rode through the city, I shared my trip and what I was doing with others on social media. A friend of mine commented “You are a rockstar!” and for a second I understood some of the self consciousness people feel about talking about the good they’re doing in the community. I told her that it was easy and enjoyable. I mean really, I’ve been doing long bike rides nearly every other day since the pandemic started. In that sense this was just another day except this time someone else told me my route and timing and shared that there are so many people making it happen: donors, organizers, dispatch people, people who work to get the donations, the people cooking food to give away, the organizers of the community fridge project. It’s a massive network of people just doing what they can to get things done.

She responded “Then you are a whole community of rock stars!”

And while that also feels good to hear, it’s simpler than that. We are a community of people being people. This is what humanity is. And I am willing to bet that wherever you are, there are individuals and groups doing the very same thing – and likely you are among them. So don’t despair. There is so much good to be found everywhere – it’s just done a bit more quietly and with loads less publicity than the bad.

5 thoughts on “The Sensitive Subject…of Kindness

  1. A wonderful initiative “the “Community Fridge. It’s so important in such difficult times. I have seen “a donation wall” in a town in India where people donate clothes during winter months.

    1. While I think government support is what *should* be present, I’m always glad to see when people just see a need and take action like this.

      I also saw something like that in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. Here, also, we sometimes see this sort of thing here with coats and winter clothes being hung up on trees or statues with signs for people to just take them.

  2. I guess people being benevolent for attention is a pretty old issue. The Bible says “So when you give to the needy, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be praised by men.” But it certainly says to give to the needy. So I think the motive is what matters. Great post, Todd.

    1. Thanks! Interesting, I hadn’t heard that bible quote before. (Full disclosure: That’s probably true about 99% of the bible).

      But really, whether doing good or doing other things, my motive for sharing really is to have readers say “Hey wait, I could do that!”

      1. I had an exercise in my first year class for years to do something you had never done for 30 minutes and then write about it. Occasionally students chose the Bible.

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