November 19, 2015

I’m amazed by the acts of kindness in recent days following the terrorist attacks in Paris. Parisians opened their doors to strangers in a move that was bold, selfless and beautiful. Adel Termos tackled a suicide bomber in Beirut, giving his life to protect a crowd.

More often our acts of kindness are on a smaller scale, such as bringing flowers to lay them beside concert halls and restaurants for lost loved ones, or lighting candles for strangers, or taking a few hours off to console a grieving co-worker. Maybe it’s something as simple as seeing a note from a grieving woman and asking: “What would I need someone to say in the midst of my grief?” Maybe it’s overcoming that small bit of fear, so that we can take care of someone else’s needs for a half hour.

Even small acts of kindness change the world for the better.

I was reminded of this a year ago when a sky lantern crashed in my yard. Scrawled across it were the words: “Love you, Dad. Miss you so much. Steph.”

There was no contact information on the lantern, and I debated whether to write her an open letter. I was afraid I might look ridiculous, that it might not get back to her, that I’d waste my time. What if Steph didn’t want someone to contact her? What if she preferred to think that lantern rose up into the sky and went, somehow, to her dad?

But I have three daughters. The thought of them sending a letter after I die and getting no response finally decided things, and I posted a note on my website, telling Steph that her father loved her, that he was proud of her and that he wanted her to live a good life.

I invested an hour and a half in that letter. As people read it, it seemed to hit a deep emotional chord for many, and it got passed from person to person, posted on social media and sent via email, all over the world. Many people wrote to share how the letter impacted them. It helped some to forgive their fathers. Others used the letter to explain to their children how their father felt before he died. A woman carried the letter in her purse to remind her of her dad.

People shared their lives, their grief, their tears of joy or pain or moment of healing. For a moment, we were all connected by our shared humanity, by our loss and love and fears and hopes.

When we are kind to people we don’t know, we conquer fear, if only for a moment. We acknowledge that “they” are the same as “us.”

 

Acts of kindness matter. They are a declaration that the ways we are the same are more important than the ways we differ. Acts of kindness allow us to look at those in need and see ourselves.

The seed of kindness is asking: What if that person is the same as me?

What would I need if I had lost my dad? What would I want if I was stuck on the side of the road? If I was on the run from violence in my home country, how would I want a potential refuge to treat me and my family? If I was hungry, would I want to be fed? If I was cold, would I want a blanket?

Steph eventually found the letter I had written, and we became friends. She made changes in her life because of the reminder of her dad’s love. She embraced his desire for her to live a better life, and saw herself as someone worthy of love and respect. That’s an amazing return for one small kindness from a stranger.

Steph has brought wonderful things to my life as well. For instance, she encouraged me to write letters to my own daughters, a process that was beautiful and has created new avenues of expressing love and care within our own family.

Our acts of kindness may only be brief lights in the night, but the smallest light is more powerful than the greatest darkness.

 

Matt Mikalatos work with a non-profit dedicated to helping people live fuller, more rewarding lives. He’s the author of Sky Lantern, a book about how small acts of kindness can change our lives and the world around us.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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