KINDNESS: A Catalyst that Connects

NSA Oregon is pleased to share with you this article by our own Linda Cohen. She was featured in the December issue of Speaker Magazine. Linda is a Professional Member of the National Speakers Association and serves on the board of directors for NSA Oregon.

As speakers, our words change lives. Our actions can do the same. Every day we have the ability to choose to act in a positive or negative way. Considering the nature of our profession, we need to consciously consider the impact our words or behavior can have on others. Simply put, because of what we do for a living why would we choose anything other than kindness?

One single action can be something another person remembers forever. Consider the stranger who stays with a woman in a store when she learns her father has just taken his life, or offering someone a place to spend the night after having to abandon her car in a snowstorm. Even letting someone go in front of you at the grocery story can be an opportunity to make someone’s day better. We have dozens of daily opportunities to offer a word or action that can meaningfully connect with another human being.

I wasn’t always an active observer of the value of kindness. I fell into it quite unexpectedly, but sometimes life takes us in surprising directions. In the spring of 2006, my father called to tell me he’d been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. They gave him less than a year to live.

We had a tumultuous relationship leading up to his diagnosis. We were stuck in a relationship where we still related to each other as if I were a teenager, despite the fact that I was now a married woman, a mother and in my late 30’s. The day he told me he was dying, I knew that if anything was going to change for us it had to happen immediately. There wasn’t going to be another chance. I flew across the country to be with him for a long weekend.

The next eight months were a profound gift, a chance to heal old wounds. He asked me, “Why did we wait until I was dying to do this?” I believe now that this was the only span of time the healing could have taken place. My father died on December 1, 2006, my son’s sixth birthday.

The depth of grief I felt after his death overwhelmed me. I took a “spiritual sabbatical” from my home-based skin care business to be present with this important loss. A few weeks later, I woke up in the middle of the night with a thought. I wanted to perform 1,000 mitzvahs in my father’s memory. A mitzvah is the Jewish word for a good deed and there are 613 official mitzvot that Jews are commanded to perform. My intention was to perform these 1,000 mitzvahs or acts of loving kindness as a proactive way to work through the pain and loss that I felt in my father’s absence.

I figured the project would allow me to help others in small ways and create good feelings to compensate for my pangs of grief and sadness. I initially wondered how long it would take to perform 1,000 mitzvahs. I originally thought it could be done in a year or less. The next morning, I shared the idea with my husband, a software engineer, who suggested we create a blog to track the mitzvah project. In January 2007, I posted my first blog entry on 1000mitzvahs.org. The first mitzvah was gifting a friend with a book before a trip she was taking.

The night after creating my blog and writing my first entry, I emailed several close friends to tell them about the project. I was nervous about what they would think as I was unaccustomed to sharing the details of my personal endeavors online. I worried that someone might call me a braggart. I almost didn’t send that email because of fear. However, the immediate feedback was encouraging and I began to relax into this new adventure.

The mitzvah project gave me time to grieve and process my loss. The book idea came about 18 months into the project when a young Rabbi asked if I’d considered how much this project had helped move me through grief. He suggested I consider writing a book.

Though this project was deeply rooted in my religious beliefs, I realized it could be equally relevant and inspiring to a secular audience. A Bay Area publisher loved the project idea and wanted to publish 1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness, Can Heal, Inspire and Change Your Life. The book helped synthesize the lessons I’d gleaned from my personal project.

In the months leading up to the book publication, I discovered NSA Oregon. Its Fast Track Program helped me cultivate professional speaking skills as I was speaking more frequently about the project. Sharing my story and message inspired and impacted others. Synagogues, churches, schools and non-profits around the world have taken on their own kindness projects based on the 1,000 mitzvahs idea.

During the two-and-a-half years of performing mitzvahs, I discovered that, aside from the moral virtue of doing kind acts, being kind is good for your health and happiness. The giver of kindness benefits as much or more than the recipient. Not only is there a beauty in giving but also the ability to graciously receive is invaluable. From the beginning, most of the mitzvahs were simple and duplicable.

I didn’t set out to save the world. I don’t even profess that any of the 1,000 mitvahs stand out as particularly important or life changing. But I will assert that each of them made a small impact on others, and that cumulatively these kind acts changed my life.

Mitzvah Ideas for Speakers:

Greet and welcome a newcomer to your service, meeting, or event. Being unfamiliar with customs and rituals can be intimidating, whether it’s an NSA meeting, religious services or other group gatherings. It is always better to be greeted by a smiling stranger who helps you through the moments of disorientation—someone who’s so approachable you feel comfortable asking questions. Make it a new policy the next time there’s a newcomer in your midst at a meeting or a service to welcome them and show them the ropes, whether you’ve been appointed to or not.

Commend someone on a job well done. Travel often requires that we put our lives and faith in the hands of strangers. We take airplanes, trains, and taxis driven by strangers whom we entrust to get us safely to our destinations. We eat food prepared by others, and strangers meet many of our daily needs when we’re on the road. While creature comforts of home are absent when we travel, part of the fun of the experience is adjusting to new experiences if we have the right outlook. Remember how important and simple it is to cultivate an attitude of gratitude when you’re traveling: A tip for a housekeeper. A shout out to a manager for excellent service received from a hotel employee or anyone else who’s gone above and beyond to assist you can mean a great deal to the recipient. Even a fellow traveler might do a good deed for you. “Thank you” goes a long way.

Give a compliment to someone today. “I love your dress. What a great color.” “Your bowtie is awesome, I don’t see them very often anymore.” It goes without saying that many of us are so busy and caught up in our own lives that we can barely find the time to pay attention to someone else. It also goes without saying that being the recipient of a compliment can be a mood changer that shifts everything. Perhaps you remember a time someone complimented you. It’s the simplest mitzvah you can offer. Be genuine and honest and pass compliments out liberally while withholding personal opinion, criticism or complaints. You might be surprised that more compliments will come your way as well. Sometimes, by recognizing the power of giving, we ourselves become more in tune to all the small and subtle ways in which we also receive.

Remain calm in your words and actions. When you are feeling impatient, take a moment to put your situation into perspective. Take a deep breath and realize that you have complete choice as to how you’ll respond; no one else has the power to decide that but you. Yes, you can blame others, get irritated, be annoyed, and yell at the person trying to help you, or decide you are powerless over the situation. Or you can maintain your dignity and choose to react with patience and calmness, in words and actions.

Open your heart and listen to a friend or stranger. Any of us who live in a community will eventually run into people we know as we go about our lives, from the grocery store to movies or elsewhere. We might make a conscious decision to avoid certain people, slipping down another aisle or trying to dodge a face-to-face encounter. I’ve done this myself, for all kinds of reasons—whether I was short on time or wasn’t in the mood to interact. However, you never know when this situation is an opportunity to make a difference for someone else. In this noisy, busy world people are longing for real, authentic connection. Sometimes the kindest act we can offer is a caring heart and a listening ear.

As speakers, we have many opportunities to be role models for others. We have numerous possibilities every day to choose kindness, to use our words to uplift fellow speakers, audience members and maybe even the world at large. I invite you to join me in cultivating kindness in all your spheres of influence. Imagine how different our world might be if each of us intentionally spread our loving kindness across this earth every day! Look for the kind deeds awaiting you and I guarantee you will find them.

Linda Cohen is a kindness catalyst and the author of 1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire and Change Your Life. She speaks to organizations and businesses that want to improve their inter-personal interactions by identifying and cultivating a culture of kindness.