“It’s Not Just You: 2017 Was Rough Year For Humanity, Study Finds,” went the Sept. 12 New York Times headline on a story about how more people are feeling more hopeless than ever before. “Violence, bitter partisanship, an uncertain future. These are dark times,” wrote the Times’ Niraji Chokski. “In fact, humanity just had its gloomiest year in more than a decade — and maybe even longer. In 2017, more people reported negative experiences — defined as worry, stress, physical pain, anger or sadness — than at any point since at least 2005, the year that Gallup, the analytics and consulting company, introduced a survey to measure emotional well-being.”
The Gallup survey involved interviews with more than 154,000 people in more than 145 countries, and the results suggest a prevailing distrust in our fellow human — a distrust Sara Schonwald distrusts, and actually knows better than. As founder of Commit Kindness, Schonwald knows humanity is not in the pits and that people are capable of random acts of kindness every day.
“This is something I’ve always been excited about,” said Schonwald, a 38-year-old leadership and intercultural consultant, wife and mother of two from the East Calhoun neighborhood. “Who are we in community with each other, and how do we bear witness with each other even in the moments when you don’t think anyone’s looking? I’ve always been really struck and excited by the power of seemingly small acts of kindness and the impact they can have.”
Launched three years and about 30 stories of kindness ago, the Commit Kindness manifesto goes: “Commit Kindness was born from the actions of strangers: the held doors, the offered bus seats, the carried bags, the impromptu smiles. We offer and receive acts of kindness like this all the time. But these moments often go untold, so minor that we forget them when we recall the happenings of our days. These are the actions that often come just at the right time, in moments when we need to be reminded that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. Commit Kindness gives us a chance to honor one another for the way we walk in the world even in the small moments. Because even in those moments, we’re part of a community. And in community, kindness matters.”
Take it from me, Commit Kindness is the gift that keeps giving — no matter what your vexation of the moment may be. Minneapolis’s soul-crushing traffic, construction and road rage got you down? Read about the stranger who bought a couple dinner at a restaurant or the kid who held the door for a family on Commit Kindness. Spent too much time reading comments from Star Tribune readers, some of the meanest, most judgmental people on the planet? Check out the story about the snow-blowing stranger on Commit Kindness. Horrified by the actions of the “president”? Disillusioned by creepy Supreme Court judges and nominees? Commit to Commit Kindness — the website, the philosophy, the action.
“I think that it helps us remember how connected we are,” Schonwald said. “What I see with the site, what I know from experience, is that we often don’t think twice about these things when we’re offering them, and yet the impact can be so profound. I don’t want people reporting the acts of kindness that we offer; I want us to report the acts of kindness we receive, so this is a site where it’s about how we are impacted by these acts, and we get to share what the impact was.”
Commit Kindness is a quick-read rabbit hole, with posts written mostly from Minneapolis. Some of the best are some of the shortest. One simply reads, “As you loaded groceries in your car you blocked my exit from the parking space. You noticed, stopped, stepped back, smiled and waited. As I backed out I was grateful for the reminder of how sweet it feels when another puts you first, even for seconds.”
Not long after, the poster emailed Schonwald with this testimonial, which perhaps best describes the importance of committing random acts of kindness, the importance of writing down random acts of kindness, and the importance of Commit Kindness itself:
“Thought I’d let you know that your site makes a difference. When I first looked at Commit Kindness I was reminded that when someone cuts in front of my car or treats me like an unwanted intruder to customer service, it jolts me like loud speakers parked in my ear. Small, significant acts of kindness, however, seem to play almost indiscernibly in the background. Like most background music, sometimes it registers, but most times not. The initial visit to this site recalibrated my attention to notice and hear more small acts of kindness. An extra bonus was it added a definite lightness to my day. That was significant, but a greater impact resulted from contributing to the site.
“Without taking the minute or two to write it up, I don’t think I would have allowed a specific, small act of kindness to still make a difference today. The old adage, ‘What we pay attention to grows’ certainly holds true in using this site. I’m no Gandhi, but I see a little more kindness every day … it actually makes it over the din into awareness. I know I’m adding an act or two of kindness daily because this site helped me both experience and believe that it matters. Who knows, maybe there’s a kindness ‘tipping point’ this will take us to!
“I’ve encouraged my friends to both visit and contribute to Commit Kindness. It makes a difference. Thanks for creating it.”
The stories on Commit Kindness (“It’s really small, but I really like it!” laughed Schonwald) also serve as reminders that it can be a bold act to reach out to complete strangers, but people are doing it all the time, and you, too, can bust out of yourself and take the leap.
“There’s something really magical about bearing witness to each other, and that’s my work across the board,” Schonwald concluded. “How can we better bear witness to ourselves and to each other so that we can do really good work together, to work towards justice, to work towards a world where — again, I’m not free if you’re not free — we actually build equity and justice together? This is a very small part of that.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].