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When I was a student funeral director, we had a non-denominational celebrant on staff. Let's call him Larry.
Larry would stand in front of the casket and begin each funeral with these words: "Take a moment to look at all the people around you here today. Let me tell you something: One of you will be next."
I choked on my coffee when I first heard this introduction. And there were audible gasps and murmurs from the mourners gathered.
His follow up was intriguing, though. He continued: "How do you want to be remembered?"
I've had many years to think about this. I've decided that I want to be remembered for being kind.
Living a life that is actively kind and loving is not difficult. The only hurdle is changing our perspective from inward to outward. Looking outward focuses our minds on what is surrounding us, because within all of us lies a plethora of burdens. The kind of burdens that sap our energy, steal the colour from our faces and slump our shoulders. It's easy to devolve into a negative thought cycle with all the hardships we carry.
Had I continued on the path I was on, I would be remembered for being a tired, worried and anxious person. The only antidote I could find was kindness.
Kindness is contagious. The STD-type of contagious. Performing and witnessing random acts of kindness fills your heart with joy. Your heart becomes so full of kindness, you spread it around whether you mean to or not. Plus, the effect is twofold: while it helps those around us, it helps us as well.
Without fail, every single time I did something nice for someone, I felt better about myself. Stronger. More able to attack the every-day stressors that came along. It was like depositing good feelings into a psychological bank account, and I could withdraw those good feelings on bad days. Altruism be damned. I was a little tired, a little depressed, had a hard time finding some good in every day, so I decided to make some good in every day.
How can one person make a difference without a lot of time or money? I started by taking a close look at the world around me.
Surrounding each of us is a community of need, and not just in hospitals or shelters. They are the neighbour who is looking after a sick parent and two young children. The single mother who has a cold and is too sick and tired to go grocery shopping. The nursing-home resident who never gets a new book to read. The receptionist at work who hasn't had a bathroom break in three hours or a busy colleague whose coffee has gone cold. Opportunities at home present themselves, as well. I will find myself sneaking out on the occasional Sunday afternoon with my husband's car. I fill it with gas, tidy the inside and run it through the car wash in the hopes that it makes his Monday morning a bit brighter. On cold mornings, he will take my towel to the dryer and warm it up while I'm in the shower.
I also like to acknowledge the unsung heroes in our neighbourhoods. Gratitude in the form of a random act of kindness can renew a person's sense of purpose. For instance, I have completely fallen in love with my local library. It has video games and all the new Oscar-winning movies. There is one particular librarian who is always friendly and has amazing suggestions for new books. I'm going to bring her a box of Timbits today with a thank you note. If you have school-age children, consider buying a box of tissues or a couple of erasable markers for your child's teacher. I'm shocked at how many teachers use their own money for supplies. I still work in funeral service, and how weird would it be if I had to buy my own printer cartridges or embalming fluid?
Finally, there are those who impact our lives, but rarely see. When I was little, mail was delivered directly to the house so we knew who the letter carrier was. It gave my parents an opportunity to say thank you and to remember him at Christmas. Now? I have no idea who delivers the mail to our community mailbox, and, therefore, never say thank you. So I taped a thank-you note to the inside of my box door, hoping it will make their day a bit brighter. I think next time, I'll include a $5 coffee gift card.
Sometimes, an opportunity presents itself in the unlikeliest of places – the grocery store. One day last week, the customer ahead of me was being rude to the cashier. The scanned price of the item was different from the flyer. Sure, it's annoying when this happens, but the customer's tongue-lashing left the cashier shocked. So I rifled through my purse, took out some change and said, "That was really awful. It wasn't your fault. Here, buy yourself a coffee tomorrow morning." Her resigned, downtrodden expression immediately brightened. Five seconds and less than $2 completely turned this woman's day around.
Is one good deed a day too much to ask? Yes, it is. I aim for one a week. One act that I can be proud to share with the hope it starts a ripple effect.
Simply changing our perspective from inward to outward makes it easier to carry the burdens that affect all of us. Our lives will be richer and happier, and the scales will tip in favour of all that is good in the world. How will we be remembered?
Angie Elliott lives in Bolton, Ont.