In an undergraduate sociology class, I was once told that altruism — the idea that selfless kindness has an intrinsic value — doesn’t really exist. The thinking here is that we don’t necessarily do anything entirely out of our hearts’ goodness. What seems selfless, is in fact, selfish. It is reasoned here that we do good acts in the hope, even expectation, that others will reciprocate, and this is often called “reciprocal altruism.” A fellow student argued, “But I believe there is true altruism. I often do things not because I want something in return, but simply because it makes me feel good to do it.” The professor just smiled, realizing the student had only defeated her own argument, “Because it makes YOU feel good. Why didn’t you say you do it because of how good it makes the recipient of your generosity feel?”
There are various explanations given why we are nice (and why we sometimes are not). A Jewish person may say that we are kind because God made us that way, in his image. A Christian might elaborate that the example of Christ is the basis for our kindness. A Muslim may refer to the belief that only through our good works do we earn our way into heaven. An evolutionary biologist might conversely point to Darwinian evolution to explain the development of reciprocal altruism as a trait that gave early man a survival advantage, fostering cooperation within groups. No matter why we are kind, and most of us are, the important thing is, pragmatically, not why we are kind, but that we are.
Some may challenge the degree to which we exercise altruism, no matter the source, and reference media coverage to the contrary. Just turn on the news and see how long it takes you to find a headline story about some evil act: Mideast turmoil, high school shooting, gang violence, attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol, just to mention a few examples. An understanding of the nature of news reporting might help to understand this, however. It may be true that “if it bleeds, it leads.” Let’s face it; even those who are good, most of us, are more captivated by stories that shock than those that give us a warm feeling deep down inside. While it may not always seem this way, the number of accounts that involve terrible acts of selfishness and even evil are vastly outnumbered by random acts of kindness.
Bad news is, by its very nature, more unique, rare, and engaging. Despite all the news of terrible crimes, the fact is that the world is a much safer place today than at any time in the past. This is not just gut feeling or emotion speaking but can be supported by hard evidence. A study conducted by Ted Robert Gurr and other colleagues at the University of Maryland’s Center for International Development and conflict management revealed that “today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.” For a very detailed and compelling explanation of the decline of violence as well as why this has occurred, see Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
While this good news is an interesting subject for more scientific inquiry, I want to talk about it on a more personal level. After all, numbers are cold and impersonal, and I want to talk about human experience — anecdotal as it may be. Let’s step away from the considerations of what scientists and theologians say about the source of kindness and talk about examples of random acts of kindness. Actions on the part of strangers that have moved me to put pen to paper.
While some of the stories I will recount here go back several years, I wrote them down in real-time. I am motivated to share this now by a recent conversation with a much younger friend. We talked of my retirement from the U.S. Military after a tremendously rewarding career as a military intelligence officer. To my friend’s surprise, even in the military, which included combat deployments, I saw far more kindness than what might be dubbed “evil.” Like so many others, my young friend also had a feeling that things are going very badly today. I disagree. In fact, and despite the current pandemic, we live in a unique period in human history. As a 54-year-old man, I have lived most of my life in the greatest time in our species’ history. All the reasons for this are the subjects of multiple other articles, but I’ll just focus on the kindness of strangers for now.
I’ll begin with my trip back home mid-way through a tour in Iraq. Now I realize I may appear something of a mushy sap here and not much of a big, tough soldier, but I spent about half of my break from Iraq nearly in tears. Anyone who knows me is already well aware that I am not that tough anyway, so it’s not as if I am revealing any secrets. These were the good kind of tears, though, like the ones some people get when they see their children do something really great, like tie their shoes for the first time.
I am sometimes naïve, but I believe people are basically good, and I try to see everyone’s best. But I was not prepared for what I saw when I went home from Southwest Asia. I lived either in Germany or Korea during every major conflict we had during my military career until my Iraq deployment. So I had only heard stories about how the soldiers were treated. I never saw it first hand other than the occasional kind word from someone wanting to show their appreciation for the military.
It all started on the plane ride home. We were required to travel from Iraq and back, in our military uniforms. Hence, it was easy to spot the soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The flight from Kuwait through Germany to Atlanta was filled only with soldiers, so nothing special to this point. Well, nothing special other than the most junior soldiers, who had served on the baggage detail loading the plane with all the duffle bags, were given seats in first class. Nice touch; they deserved it.
When the plane landed in Atlanta, we all got on separate flights depending on our final destinations. Here, I was one of only a few soldiers on the flight, and just before takeoff, a flight attendant came back and apologized for missing me when I first got on. She had moved the other three soldiers to first-class and said she had a seat up there for me too and asked where my carry on was so she could move me up. As it happened, I had just started a conversation with the gentleman seated beside me. He was a veteran who had fought in WW II, and I thanked her but told her I would rather sit and talk to him. But the gesture was very nice. By the way, any time I might have been tempted to feel sorry for myself while sitting in Iraq, I thought about guys like that man on the plane. I had to be in Iraq for a year. When soldiers of this man’s generation shipped off, they had no idea how long they would be where they were going during WW II. He wound up fighting for almost 4 years, so my 1 year was not so bad.
When my flight to Baltimore-Washington International Airport landed, the pilot announced that soldiers were on the plane coming home for R&R. He and asked that everyone remain seated until we were off the plane as a sign of respect and appreciation. Like a big softy, I got tears in my eyes and put on my sunglasses to try to hide it. Everyone applauded when we were leaving the plane. It was very moving and made the whole deployment so far worth the effort.
If nothing else like this happened again during my vacation, it would have been ok. It was enough and more than I had expected. But that was just the beginning. As soon as I got off the plane, there was a Starbucks straight ahead when I exited the gate. It had been a while since my last visit to Starbucks, so I headed for the counter. Before I made it to the line, some guy walked up, shook my hand, said, “thank you,” and kept walking. Then, when I was in line for my coffee, a guy walked past me, made eye contact, and said “hi.” I returned the greeting. The guy then returned to the front of the line and handed something to the girl working the counter. She looked a bit surprised when he gave the item to her and whispered something. She was quite pretty, so I thought he may be handed her his number and tried his best pick-up line. I thought it was a coincidence that she looked straight at me when he did this. When it was my turn to order, I asked for a coffee. She asked me, “are you sure that is all you want?” She held up a ten-dollar bill and told me that that man had given it to her and said whatever the soldier wanted was on him. I stuck with the coffee, thanked her, and looked for him to thank him, but he was gone.
I won’t try to relate each instance of some stranger walking up to shake my hand and say thank you, but it happened a lot. And each time I got a big lump in my throat. I didn’t feel worthy of it.
Move forward a few days. One of the things that I did with my family on this break from Iraq was take a short trip to Lewes, Delaware, a nice little resort area on the Atlantic Ocean. While there, we went deep-sea fishing. Waiting for the boat to leave, I was making conversation with the lady I had just paid for the trip ($140 for the four of us). She said she was sorry for the overcast weather and said it was too bad it was cloudy and looked like rain. I told her that I hadn’t seen a cloud for 8 months, so this was just fine with me. She asked where I had been to not see clouds, so we talked about my time in Iraq. She passed this along to the boat’s captain, who told his mates to take extra special care of us because “He’s home from the war.” It sounded strange to hear that about me. The boat Captain later approached me and asked me to come see him when we got back to shore and that he had something for me. I really don’t know what I expected, maybe a souvenir baseball cap or a t-shirt with his boat’s logo or something like that. When we got back, he gave me four passes to come back anytime we wanted. The tears came back — I blamed it on getting saltwater in my eyes.
Forward again a few more days. The next random act of kindness occurred when I was trying to take care of one of those things that you have to do when only home for a short time after a long time away. My car was long overdue for some maintenance. I had a conversation with the garage manager about why I had put off getting the work done. I pointed out that I had not been driving this car for eight months because I have been away, which took our conversation in another direction. Like most of the people I met, he was curious about Iraq, and it was really like. When we finished our conversation, I left the car at the garage, gave them my cell number, and jumped on the metro for downtown D.C., asking them to call me when the work was done. And call me they did; to tell me that there was actually about $1,200 worth of work that needed to be done. Usually, I would have been very suspicious and think he was making this up to make a quick dollar, but I had already been told by two other mechanics that this work needed to be done, and I had just been putting it off. I told him to go ahead.
I authorized the work to be done, mentally kissed 1200 bucks goodbye, and went about my sightseeing in D.C. The mechanic called me back about two hours later. He said, “Mr. Davis, we need your authorization to replace a rotor, a belt tensioner….” and some other things I can’t remember what they were. I asked how much all this was, and he said it was about $800 more, but all he needed was my “authorization to do the work, not the money.” He said that since I was over there in Iraq, the boss said no charge for the additional work. Suddenly I didn’t mind the $1,200 quite so much.
Forward yet again, a few days later. I have long been a Japanese karate practitioner. After moving to Maryland from Korea, I wanted to find a good dojo (karate school) in the area. I wanted to find one where I could train with my children upon my return from Iraq, and I wanted to get my children involved right away.
I called up the International Shotokan Karate Federation (ISKF) in Philadelphia for some advice. The recommendation was that I go to see Sensei (Japanese for teacher) Amin in Randallstown, Maryland. While I had never met Sensei Amin, I did know him by reputation and knew that he was one of only 4 non-Japanese 7th-degree black belts in the entire ISKF. I took my family there. We met Sensei Najib Amin, and his son, also a teacher at the dojo, Sensei Farid Amin.
Sensei Amin’s wife explained the dojo’s administrative part, the associated costs, and the like. When I tried to pay, she suggested that I wait until I brought my sons back for their first class. When we returned a couple of days later, I tried to pay the necessary amount to cover the classes until I was scheduled to return at the end of my tour in Iraq. I was told that Sensei Amin would not accept any money from me for as long as I was in Iraq. The kids could train there for free until I returned home.
I never questioned what I did for a living or why I did it. But I sometimes wondered if it was appreciated by everyone back home, mostly due to some of the news stories I had seen. This trip removed all those doubts, and I admit that it made it a lot easier to go back there to finish my tour.
Fast forward again, this time nearly a decade. My tour was over a while ago, and I have been back to Iraq 5 times since then, but only for short visits then back home. I have often thought about those random acts of kindness and would like to share one more, which is not related to being in a war zone.
I was on my way back home to Virginia, where I lived at the time, from Germany. To pass some of the time on a layover at Dulles Airport, I went to have dinner. All the restaurants were busy, and no tables were available at the place I decided on, so I was standing there waiting. I asked the waitress if we were to wait to be seated and was told, “If you see an empty table, jump on it.” I saw a couple leaving a table with just enough room for two people. I looked behind me and mentioned to the two men behind me in line that I only needed one of those seats, and if either of them wanted to join me, they were welcome to do so. One of them took me up on my offer.
As you would expect of two strangers sharing a table for dinner, we made small talk about where we were going to and from. It turns out he is a musician. Well, that fact was self-evident by the guitar case he was carrying. He was much too humble to comment on his proficiency as a musician. Still, he was going to Orlando from his home in Texas to play a concert and not at his own expense, so I assumed he must be pretty good. As dinner was winding down, he took out his wallet to pay for his meal. I ordered another beer as I had longer to wait for my flight than he did. After he handed his credit card to the waitress and she walked away, he got up to catch her. I assumed that perhaps he had given her the wrong card or something but didn’t really give it much thought.
After she brought his receipt back for signature, he was getting ready to leave and reached over to shake my hand; we had talked for an hour or so and had not even exchanged names. He said his name is Dwight. I told him mine is Tony. “Nice to meet you, Tony,” he said, “dinner was on me.” I protested and said that I could not accept that and reached for my wallet. He said, “Too late. It’s already done.” And put the receipt on the table. He noted that it was already on his card, and it’s too much trouble to get it off now. I tried to give him cash for my portion, but he would not accept it. He told me he believed in karma, that he was just “paying it forward,” and that if he does good then it will be returned to him in the future. Reciprocal altruism? I don’t know. But I do know that Dwight was a class act and all-around nice guy. Not least for the fact that he had every opportunity to point out that not only is he a “not bad” musician, but a successful jazz recording artist with three albums to his credit. I only found this out because I looked at the receipt to get his last name to later “google” him and send a thank you email if I could find him. Thanks for dinner Dwight Sills. And thanks to all the other kind people out there, friends, strangers, and future old friends I’ve just not yet met.