Monthly Archives: September 2010

Instant Karma: It Really IS Gonna Get You

So I was listening to the wise words of John Lennon the other day. This was a man who knew full well that what goes around comes around. According to his sage prophecy, instant karma is gonna get you. In fact, it’s gonna look you right in the face. Furthermore, Lennon advises that you better get yourself together, darlin’, and join the human race. Says our friend Johnny: You should make an effort to recognize your brothers and, for that matter, everyone you meet.

This is closely in line with what a social psychologist suggested a couple of weeks ago when I chatted with her for an upcoming magazine article. She didn’t exactly use the words “instant karma” or hint that anything is actually “gonna get you.” But she did point out that when people have good deeds done unto them, they’re more likely to give back. They pay it forward. And then society benefits as a whole.

So when we do good turns, there’s our instant karma: We’re more likely to have a good turn done to us – if not by the person we specifically helped, then by someone else in our community.

Do keep in mind that Lennon’s use of the karma concept has been hijacked from Hindu philosophy and pretty well bastardized, I mean westernized. Karma in the true sense of the word is not a jar of coffee – it doesn’t work instantly.

But for the purposes of this blog post, and John’s famous song, it makes the point.

Remember, John Lennon thinks you’re a superstar. And we all shine on.

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Have You Had Your Dose Today?

Here’s an idea that never gets old: Give someone a warm embrace.

Is hugging a good deed? You be the judge: Hugging can lower stress and blood pressure, trigger the brain to release happy chemicals, raise self-esteem and trust, and foster a connection. By hugging another person, you’re doling out a dose of pretty powerful medicine. You’re probably also getting back some of those same goods in the process. Call it an even deal.

Yesterday I was explaining to my daughter the health benefits of hugs, and she instantly reacted by giving me a tight embrace. How lucky am I to have hug therapy right in my own home?

(My mind is now going off a bit of a tangent to dredge up this old memory: A guy I used to know had a T-shirt that read: “Hug Therapist.” His little boy, just learning to read, had a totally misguided interpretation of this message after he sounded out the letters: “Hug… the… rapist… Daddy, what’s a rapist?” So maybe the point was atrociously missed in that instance, but certainly the dad’s heart was in the right place.)

Last year around this time, my friend’s daughter, a university student, got together with a classmate to do a “Free Hugs” giveaway event. If you’ve never heard of this, it’s where you hold out a sign and offer hugs to passersby, total strangers all of them. At these young students’ first free-hugs station, inside a shopping mall, they got thrown out – apparently you need a permit to hand out hugs. Who knew?

But then they set themselves up on their university campus instead. The girl’s mom told me some people preferred virtual hugs – this was at the height of H1N1 wariness – while others just gave them a small smile and walked on. Apparently more than a few folks thought they were off the wall. But they also got lots of takers, some accepting their hugs one-on-one, others participating in a group dose. “She said after three hours she felt absolutely fantastic, and it was the best thing she had done in ages,” her mom told me. “Totally affirming about humanity!”

And now, for your viewing pleasure, some inspirational videos of free hugging around the world – not to mention some pretty cool musical backdrops: here’s Italy, Australia, Scotland, Vancouver and Toronto. Go forth and hug.

Let’s All Be the Sort of Beauty Lovers that Count

I’m reading a book of short stories by Noël Coward and I’m stunned. I can’t understand how I’ve gotten this far in life without fully getting the brilliance of this man. His stories are witty and engaging, and they display an astounding insight into human nature that rings as solidly true today as it did seventy years ago.

This morning I finished a short story called “Nature Study.” One particular gem of a passage must be shared here. Jennifer, trapped in a socially prestigious but miserable and sexless marriage, is pouring her heart out to our narrator. Jennifer’s husband is no drunken wife beater, don’t get her wrong, but rather a cultured and refined “beauty lover.” But then Jennifer adds with fervour:

“There are several sorts of beauty lovers. There are those who like kindness and good manners and wide seas and dignity, and others who like Bellini Madonnas and Giottos and mysticism and incense and being able to recognize, as publicly as possible, a genuine old this or that…

“I don’t believe it’s enough, all that preoccupation with the dead and done with, when there’s living life all round you and sudden, lovely unexpected moments to be aware of. Sudden loving gestures from other people, without motives, nothing to do with being rich or poor or talented or cultured, just our old friend human nature at its best! That’s the sort of beauty worth searching for; it may sound pompous, but I know what I mean. That’s the sort of beauty lover that counts. I am right, aren’t I?”

Jennifer, if you were real, you’d be well into your nineties now. I’m truly sorry for the hardship you endured as a young woman (though I cheered inwardly to learn you eventually found true passion with your husband’s Canadian chauffeur). I imagine you’ve seen and heard a lot by now. From the sounds of it, though, you picked up some of the most important lessons pretty early in life. You go, girl. I want to be the sort of beauty lover that counts, too.

Give Away Your Spare Parts

If you happen to be passing by a magazine rack in the near future, pick up a copy of the new October issue of Homemakers magazine. This edition includes an article I wrote about “living gifts”: that is, donations of hair, blood, bone marrow and even organs to drastically improve another person’s quality of life – or save their life.

Some donations, like blood and hair, take such relatively little time and effort that it’s probably easy to lose sight of the dramatic difference these gifts can make to someone you’ll never meet. Trust me, these donations are both needed and lifechanging. A spokesperson at a foundation that organizes wigs for chronically ill children told me: “It restores their self-esteem and their confidence… One little girl had just come from radiation treatment and could hardly keep her head up, but she had the best smile.” (Are you blubbering now? ‘Cause I sure am.)

And then there’s inner organs and stem cells. Giving away these parts of your body can’t be an easy decision when it involves taking a regimen of drugs and enduring a series of medical tests. Not to mention the plain fact that, afterwards, you’re now down to only one kidney. Plus, it’s one thing to give body parts to your own child; most parents would willingly rip out every vital organ from their body, without anesthetic, if that’s what their kids needed. But how about donating to a non-relative, or a stranger? For this magazine story I was privileged to speak to Canadians who’d done just that… and felt great about it.

Living gifts are not as daunting as you may think. Keep in mind there are plenty of ways to help without giving up your actual innards. If you want to read more, feel inspired or find out what you can do, grab the October issue of Homemakers while it’s still on sale.

Helping 101

One of the many reasons I love my writing job is that I get paid to learn stuff. Right now I just happen to be researching and writing an upcoming magazine story that’ll share a lot of what experts know about the science and motivation behind doing good. (Keep watching this space – I’ll be giving more details as the magazine issue gets closer to publication.)

Of course, I often write about good deeds. But this in particular is a fascinating opportunity to dig deeper: What’s the survival value of this behaviour? What exactly spurs people to help others, either consciously or subconsciously? We know the research shows it’s good for our mental and physical health. And most of us have experienced firsthand that nebulous warm glow of giving. But where does it all come from?

This week I’ve had the pleasure of chewing over these questions with two psychologists and a cultural anthropologist. (Just the fact that it takes Ph.D.-level brains to decipher do-good behaviour shows it can be complex stuff!) This assignment promises to be a great ride. More info to come.

Mom’s New Drug of Choice

I have a friend with a fair bit going on. She has three young kids, all of them lovely… and all of them brimming over with energy, exactly the way young kids are supposed to. That can be challenging even when you have a co-parent spelling you off. But since the spring, my friend’s husband has been spending long periods away from home on business. It’s a lot for anyone to hold together. She does get some support from her extended family, and then there’s her friends – some of us darned nice, if I may say so – but yet, understandably, she has her moments of feeling utterly steamrolled.

So how has she been coping? As a true-blue pal I was one of the first to suggest martinis. But it turns out drinkie-poos just aren’t her thing. Instead, she’s been making a point of doing good. During one week that she was feeling overwhelmed, she registered with the OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network. Another day, she wrote a letter to an old friend just to let her know how special she is. This week she has made plans to give blood for the first time.

Research shows we do reap benefits from helping others, like a boost in mood and self-esteem. So are these acts of kindness giving my friend a lift when she needs it? Well, put it this way: She’s still smiling, her marriage is intact and the lovely kids haven’t been put up for adoption. So helping helps? She votes yes.

Forget what I said earlier about the martinis. Time to get high on good deeds… A.K.A. Mother’s Little Helper.

Blisters, Bites and Benevolence

Have you ever celebrated a milestone birthday by getting blisters and mosquito bites? That’s what Carol Evans did recently for her 60th. Carol, who lives on Prince Edward Island, decided to walk the length of her province – about 270 km along the Confederation Trail. It took this grandmother eight exhausting days, some of it through sweltering heat and clouds of biting bugs. Her point? She managed to raise over $22,000 towards an echocardiogram machine for her local hospital. (Side observation: Just why are these physical endeavours always so successful in raising charitable funds? Maybe because of what instantly goes through the minds of most of the rest of us: “Better you than me [sound of wallet opening].”)

Click on this CBC podcast to listen to Carol chat – exceptionally cheerfully, considering it’s Day Eight – about her experience. Carol, I don’t know you, but next time I have a glass in my hand, I’m giving you a birthday toast.

Last year I held a small fundraiser for my own milestone birthday. (Hint: I’m younger than Carol Evans… but, come to think of it, possibly less fit.) We didn’t collect anywhere near the price tag of a fancy piece of medical equipment, but we did raise enough to cover a month’s health-care costs and supplies for a medically fragile little boy in Saskatchewan.

When I went online ahead of the occasion to research my party plans, I saw a ton of other fantastic ideas out there. So I know lots of you are out there making your own celebrations make a difference. I’d love to hear your ideas – how have you marked your own coming-of-age with meaning?

Give Your Dapper Duds a Second Life

A friend tweeted recently about Dress Your Best. This charity collects donations of gently used clothing for a good cause: setting up disadvantaged job-seekers with an office wardrobe and image consulting so they’ll have a better shot at interviews and long-term employment. Although Dress Your Best is Toronto-based, there are over 100 affiliates around the world.

When I heard about the group, I knew I had a few officey items at the back of my closet that could definitely be doing more than hobnobbing with the turtleneck sweaters. But would I have time to take a trip to the charity’s headquarters during its very specific drop-off times? Would it be worth it for just a few pieces of clothing? Have I mentioned I have giant-hearted neighbours? I circulated an e-mail to other women in my community suggesting we do a joint effort. Within a few days, several others had promised to bring by clothing to add to the collection pile. I also received at least two offers to make the delivery downtown. Some acts of kindness gather strength in numbers.

Points for Half-Boiled Good Deeds

I promised myself that my next blog posting would focus on a gem of research on helping or some upcoming fundraiser for a good cause. But this was too funny – and possibly thought-provoking – not to share.

A couple of days ago I took one of my rare trips downtown. I live in the Toronto suburbs and work from home, so I can be a hermit for days on end. Of course when you’re out in public, the opportunities to lend a helping hand crop up much more frequently.

I got off a subway train, happened to notice a woman with a white cane navigating her way through the station, and asked her if she wished any assistance. She didn’t need or wish it, although I did get a beautiful smile for my trouble.

Thus it was pretty ironic, when, a couple of hours later on my way to my second appointment, a totally different woman with a white cane was thrown into my lap to be helped. Maybe not literally thrown. But. This lady was in the company of – well, let’s call her a semi-good Samaritan, who had helpfully agreed to escort her across one street. And was now ready to wash her hands of her. Pass her off like so much courier package. She took one look at me waiting for the light to change and declared: “You can take her now.”

Naturally I was nonplussed. Turns out the first lady needed to get to the streetcar stop. And Semi-Good Samaritan – let’s call her Sammy for short – was reluctant to walk the last few feet with her because it wasn’t right on her way. “I’m going in this direction,” Sammy told me, pointing. She fled.

The first lady was good-humoured. “It’s a tricky corner,” I commented to make small talk as she and I waited for the busy traffic to come to a stop. “Yes, especially when you can’t see,” she deadpanned. I didn’t ask her what she thought of being ditched. We parted at the streetcar stop and wished each other a good day.

Later, I couldn’t help laughing as I told this tale to my husband. Who stops a good deed in the middle? He’s the one who said the story belongs on my blog. So here’s today’s discussion point: Does a half good deed count? My opinion: Of course it does. It’s still part of a deed instead of no deed. Acts of kindness aren’t anything anyone owes, or that we ought to expect. They’re the gravy, not the food staples. We should just be grateful when good deeds happen. Even the ones that take you only partway to your streetcar stop.

Besides, in my experience, there’s usually someone else who will go the next lap with you.

The Good Deed Hall of Shame

Ever have the urge to perform an act of kindness, but feel too embarrassed to go for it?

It happens to me all the time.

When you’re walking behind a stranger whose shirt tag is sticking out, don’t you just want to reach out and tuck it back in for them? (Note to reader: I’d certainly want you to do that for me!) But, like I was taught in kindergarten, I invariably keep my hands to myself. Or occasionally I’m tempted to catch a fellow transit rider’s attention and tell her just how very flattering that fuchsia blouse is on her. But even though a comment like that directed at me would make my day, I don’t have the nerve to go through with it.

Case in point: I’m taking my brisk morning walk through the neighbourhood yesterday, a daily ritual that jump-starts my work shift and reminds my circulatory system I have a brain that could use nourishing. My iPod is playing full-blast. It’s yard-waste pickup day and the streets are lined with buckets of mulberry branches and baskets of crab grass.

I notice one pail has fallen over and someone’s yard trimmings are half-spilled.

Do I stop and pick it up? There’s the question. I want to, but I feel bashful. People could look out their windows at me. The idea is somehow humiliating. So, I take the only dignified action possible. I pretend I don’t see anything out of order and I walk on.

But then I realize it would only take a second. And if someone notices, should I really care? Remember that Cambridge University research about elevation, about how watching a good deed makes you do a good deed?

Besides, I’ve got Chaka Khan in my ear buds emphatically telling me that I’m every woman. Or maybe it’s my exercise-induced endorphins talking. Anyway, two driveways later I stop in my tracks, turn around and retrace my steps. I pick up the bucket and set it right. Then I’m back on my way. There, Ms. Khan, you happy?

Some acts of kindness take us out of our comfort zones. What other examples of good deeds do you think we need to liberate from the hall of shame? Leave a comment.