I wish to send a big thank-you to that very kind but anonymous N.C. Arboretum patron who found my cellphone when I was cycling the Friday afternoon before Labor Day.
I didn’t notice it was missing until near the entrance-gate parking lot after my ride, when I tried to call my wife. Oops. Where’s that phone? I double-checked my back pockets, but it really was gone. How? Where? Briefly puzzled, I then recalled the dirt bath I’d taken over by Lake Powhatan.
As I struggled up the steepest section of trail, an awfully gnarly tree root snagged my back wheel. Up and over I went. Flat on my back, stunned, I stared dumbly through the rear-wheel spokes up at the rhododendron, as I made sure my neck was not broken. Fortunately, aside from a minor bruise, I was not hurt. I’m very thankful for that, too.
The phone must have fallen out of my pocket when I did that unexpected backward flip. It might still be lying in the dirt near those nasty tree roots. More likely, someone was already ordering from my Amazon account or charging a trip to Australia with the credit card information stored on my phone.
I decided to trek on back to the incident site and hope for the best. On the way, my monkey brain chattered incessant, pessimistic scenarios, which I managed to slow somewhat, through clenched teeth, with affirmative Buddhist mantras.
I finally reached the steep hill. I expected the worst because I had passed dozens of hikers and bikers on the trail during my ride. Dismounting, I walked the bike down and slowly scanned the pathway. A man was walking his dog up the hill. “Did you happen to lose a cellphone?” he asked. “As a matter of fact, I did.” “It’s sitting on the rail of that bridge down there,” he pointed. “Did you find it?” He said no, so I thanked him and went down to recover my cellphone where some kind arboretum patron had placed it after finding it.
So, I must say thank you, thank you, thank you, whoever you are. Thank you for your random act of kindness that has touched my heart. And thank you, also, to the dog walker and all the other hikers and bikers who passed by my phone, so glaringly conspicuous on the bridge railing, without taking it.
That’s why I love living in Asheville: There are so many kind and considerate people here. Actually, there are kind and considerate people everywhere. “Humans help each other with small things about every 2 minutes,” according to UCLA sociologist Giovanni Rossi. Researchers observed everyday interactions among people in widely different cultures all around the world. Everywhere from the outback of Aboriginal Australia to towns in England, with strangers or among relatives, “people complied with small requests seven times more often than they declined.” Whether it’s a simple gesture like passing the salt, answering a request for help or responding to nonverbal cues to lift a heavy load, people are just basically nice to each other most of the time.
So, is the ubiquitous nastiness in the media today a delusion? I believe it’s definitely a selection bias. Regrettably, you get more news coverage with gloom and doom than with Mom’s apple pie. Some scientists have argued that our brains are hard-wired to be paranoid because it prepares us to face environmental dangers and therefore has survival value.
However, acts of kindness can also have survival value. A Middle East combat veteran returned to the States with homicidal hatred of Muslims. He visited a mosque in his hometown with plans to place explosives and kill or wound at least 200 people. But the imam met him at the door and hugged him, and the congregation welcomed him. Overcome by acts of kindness, the vet abandoned plans for revenge. And he even joined the mosque! (See Stranger at the Gate, a short film by Joshua Seftel.)
I was walking our puppy Max while pondering what to write in this essay. Max came from a rescue, was poorly socialized and barks viciously at other people and dogs, so I try to avoid them. We were rounding the back parking lot of a local retirement home and going down a hill. An elderly man with a cane was struggling up the hill with a sack of groceries. I rushed Max across the street and tried to hurry past as he yelped and tugged at his leash. The man waved for me to come over. With great hesitation, I eased Max in his direction. “Can you help me get up this hill?” he asked. As the man took my arm for support, Max stopped barking. He pranced before us, his little tail wagging, all the way to the retirement home door.
So, it looks like I’m now committed to acts of kindness toward strangers. I encourage everyone to give it a try. It can bring peace and comfort to people in distress. It can transform hate into loving kindness and even make a difference between life and death. It can even soothe the savage beast in your shelter dog.
Thank you very much for reading this essay. May you know peace, may you know happiness, may you be free from suffering and filled with joy and lovingkindness.
— Richard Kownacki
Richard Kownacki is a retired psychologist who hasn’t entirely given up on trying to find the meaning of life, the universe and everything.