“I’m going to be a kinder person today!” That is what I told myself as I walked to the subway station in the morning. Why? Because if I did not remind myself that I should be a kind person, my body would be on automatic pilot to get me to my work as efficiently as possible without any divergence of any kind. In a crowded subway station in Tokyo, with hundreds of people commuting to work with a clock-like precision, one needs the help of auto-pilot.
Navigating through the stairs, escalators, subway station corridors, traffic lights and elevators, I move without thinking. If I deviate from my morning routine, I wouldn’t know what that would do to my estimated arrival time. If I arrived at my office building 5 minutes late, a line would form in front of the elevators allowing only so many people to enter into the elevator hall to fill the just-arrived elevator box. You are so focused on moving efficiently and avoiding any collision, you block out any other input that has no effect on your efficient commute. Sometimes I see a woman losing her shoe on the stairs, or an umbrella dropping out of man’s brief case, but I don’t stop to pick it up because…. you know, I need to stay in the formation. There are at least 50 people between me and that person and somebody else will pick it up and bring it to the Lost and Found. It doesn’t have to be me, I have to get to work on time. I cannot miss my 9:00am conference call. And so forth.
|One day, I was being purged out of the subway car as the door opened and my eyes were automatically searching for the most efficient route to get to the exit. In a corner of my eye, I saw a woman getting sick and squatting on the platform. Should I stop and ask if she needs a help? But I am already past her and to go back against the waves of people would be a total disruption to this orderly flow of subway commuting. The sea of people has already washed me away from her and I am further and further away, almost at the top of the stairs.|
Then, I changed my mind and decided to go back and ask her if she needed any help. By the time I got to her, some older lady had already reached out to her. Relieved, I turned around and headed to my work, re-experiencing this incident over and over again in my mind. Why did I not stop and turn around the first minute that I saw her? What if her condition was so time sensitive that a few minutes delay would have caused an irreversible consequence? I felt that I needed to make myself react more quickly and not allow my auto-pilot to override what I was feeling. I had to remind myself to be kind.
So began my experiment to be a kinder person. The first test subject was the old man at the subway station Kiosk where I bought my newspaper every morning. This particular Kiosk was located in the center section of the platform and carried all your commuting essentials, i.e. 3 major newspapers, Nikkei business newspaper, 3 sports papers, a dozen weekly magazines, candies, snacks, soft drinks, disposable umbrellas and even men’s ties and ladies stockings. The inventory is all within his reach, yet the typical protocol is for the purchaser to pick up the desired item from the shelf and bring it in front of the Kiosk person along with his payment. The Kiosk person never touches the goods. Over the years, the efficiency of Japanese subway Kiosk buying behavior has been elevated to a level surpassing a vending machine. The speed at which the transaction needs to be completed during the busy hours has eliminated any unnecessary movements and exchange of words.
As the Kiosk became a human vending machine, I noticed that no one said “good morning” to the Kiosk person. So I decided to say “Good morning!” to him every day to see if my unexpected opening will awaken his human side. If I am kind to him, maybe I can pull him out of this efficient automatic response mode and make him smile. I say “Good morning!” and put my coins down. He has already identified my face and the kind of newspaper I’m going to purchase, thus narrowed down the combination of change that I might require. A second later, he hands out the exact change, fulfilling the Kiosk person function perfectly, but absolutely no response to my friendly greeting. He does not even look at me. Next day, I say “Good morning!” and put my coins down. Exact change comes back lightening fast, but no eye contact. I did that for 5 days straight and never got any response back from him. He is tough. Not all acts of kindness are acknowledged.
|The next experiment was to adjust my behavior by being conscious about my intention to be kind. If I remind myself to be a kinder person every morning on my way to the subway station, I may notice all those chances to be kind, which I was previously screening out. I decided to turn off the auto-pilot and let myself react more spontaneously.|
|This worked really well. Immediately I started to notice people dropping things, getting lost, looking for help all around me. This phenomenon extended beyond my commuting time and into the weekend so that I was helping the biker get his big motorcycle up on an icy road in early spring, catching the sliding snowboard that fell from the rack with the owner nowhere to be seen, shutting off the water faucet in the cafeteria when a hastily leaving person did not shut it off completely, helping an old man who collapsed on the street, babbling stories that were in cohesive, and so on.|
The city is full of incidents that a small random act of kindness can help someone or something to make it better. You probably saw them before, but you somehow screened out most of them. Now that I opened my eyes to any situation that my random act of kindness could participate in, I was catching at least one opportunity everyday. Then, my friends started to notice what I was doing. They were kidding me at first, but pretty soon, they too were starting to see these opportunities to be just a little kinder. Wow, being kind can be contagious.
Our subconscious mind is so capable of navigating the daily routine on auto-pilot, but by doing so, it screens out all those seemingly unnecessary stimuli to the point your life almost feels repetitive and boring. You now have to seek out other artificial stimulation to sprinkle your life with excitement. You shop, you travel and you game. Why not open yourself to kindness and you discover that there are so many things you can do. Best of all, when you find yourself being spontaneously kind in a random situation, it makes you feel good. It makes you happy.
Come to Ormsby Hill and turn off your auto-pilot. You might bump into kindness you thought you never had…
In pursuit of a kinder me…