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Paying kindness forward

The scene is a Sunday breakfast with family. The conversation is lively. Two of our three children and their families are having an impromptu morning get-together, and my daughter and son-in-law are re-telling, with animation, their experience of the previous weekend.

The two of them (and the dog they refer to as their "four-legged son") live in Portland. They are avid coffee drinkers. A Saturday morning ritual for them involves soy lattes at a drive-through coffee stand near their home. On a recent visit, as they edged up to the pick-up window, they heard, "No charge, the people in the car ahead of you paid for your drinks." Touched by the generosity, they paid for the beverages ordered by the people in the car behind them. Horn-tooting and windows-rolled-down hand-waving, as they drove away, suggested the gift kept on giving. It left an impact on them.

It made these two 30-something urban professionals more aware of the feeling of self-satisfaction and full-hearted goodwill that stems from random acts of kindness. The week that had followed clearly produced more effort on their part to initiate similar positive moments.

We kept the breakfast conversation going — with our son referring to all this as "pay it forward." He had his own examples — although, as he put it, "not enough of them."

One of our granddaughters piped in with how she let someone she "didn't even know" go ahead of her in the lunch line — twice. The smiling, back-patting reaction she received from the adults at the table will assuredly stay with her. Who knows what might happen at her school in the coming week.

I had a small opportunity to explore these approaches last night at the grocery store. I was in line buying several big bags of salad greens; the person ahead of me turned unexpectedly, handing me coupons that reduced the price of my purchases. Prompted by my recall of our family's discussion, I offered to pay for the container of milk the individual behind me was buying. We all had a pleasant pay-it-forward exchange. It had been a long day for me, and I was feeling a bit wiped out, but that act of simple outreach was energizing. It made my whole evening better.

Everybody wins. Whether you're someone who benefits from assistance offered or the individual initiating generosity, the feelings are similar. Even if you're only observing a moment when others reach out in kindness, it sort of stays in your heart. At least, it does in mine.

Let me end with this: A generous-hearted friend of mine sent me the following reference in a tender email this week; it too has stayed in my heart. It's from a treatise on "Learning to Be Kinder" cited by Marc Ian Barasch in "Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness."

Aldous Huxley, the prolific English writer, was asked on his deathbed to sum up what he had learned in his eventful life. He said, "It's embarrassing to tell you this, but it seems to come down mostly to just learning to be kinder."

The Dalai Lama put it this way, "Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible."

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.