Small Gestures Make a Big Difference

A small gesture of kindness you make today can have an effect that lasts well beyond your lifetime. It may even make a difference in the lives of others for generations. You just never know.

On his social media accounts, a friend of mine has a quote instead of a profile shot. You’ve heard the quote before. “You never know what someone is going through. Be kind. Always.” Put another way, if you have an opportunity to be nice, why would you not take it? Why would you ever, purposely, take an unkind path?

During my last semester in college I had an internship working in a local radio newsroom. Back then(1980s) WTIC-AM in Hartford, Connecticut was known as a powerhouse, legacy radio station, with a renowned news product. If you were in the broadcast news business, and you could not land a job with a network, working at a station like WTIC would be the next best thing. It was considered one short step away from the pinnacle.

The news director, at the time, was Walt Dibble. He had made a name for himself in Connecticut journalism over several decades at several radio stations. You may recognize the last name. Walt is the father of former big league pitcher and broadcaster Rob Dibble. At Walt’s funeral in 1997, Rob said his father was completely devoted to his work and he had no doubt he was already working to secure his first interview in Heaven with God.

Walt was my idol, as difficult as that may be to believe in today’s world, where over the air radio has lost its once huge audience. Toward the end of my internship I asked him if he would write a letter of recommendation. Of course he said, “yes” and by the end of my shift he presented me with the letter, and several copies, in a folder with the WTIC logo on it.

I was so grateful. I thought for sure a letter of recommendation from Walt was a key to any career door I wanted to unlock. It was four short, well-written paragraphs, on the light blue paper and in the large font used to write broadcast scripts. Probably ten to twelve sentences total. On that particular day, it represented the crowning achievement of my career.

Though years later I realized how little effort it took on Walt’s part to bang out those four paragraphs on his typewriter, I held copies of the letter in my files for a long time and included one every time I sent out a tape and resume package in the search for a new job in a bigger market, working with a news team like the one Walt led.

More importantly, I took Walt’s graciousness as an example and I vowed that for the rest of my life, if I ever had an opportunity to help someone, in a similar way, I would. Every time I write a letter on someone’s behalf, or make a phone call, and every time I am asked for a favor that I can reasonably deliver on — I do. And as I do, Walt comes to mind. I think of him and I remind myself of the promise I made the first time I read Walt’s letter.

I do not know how often I have made good on that promise — dozens of times I am sure — but I do know that more than twenty-five years after Walt’s death and forty years after he wrote the letter — his simple gesture of kindness has touched the lives of everyone I have touched in a similar way. People who had not been born while he was living.

I now teach part time at a university in Connecticut and a few weeks ago, at the start of the semester, a student I had never met before emailed me before class to ask for a favor.

It was a simple, reasonable request, and required little effort on my part to deliver on. From my perspective it really boiled down to this question: Would I choose to be kind or would I choose to be selfish? Of course I chose to be kind. Of course I chose to do the right thing. For this I deserve no special credit. As far as I am concerned, the world would be a better place if we all chose to live this way — with intention — as they say in the self-help world.

A couple of weeks later the same student approached me before class and pulled a small trophy out of his pocket and handed it to me. It was from a student association on campus and it had a small plaque at the bottom that read “Human of the Week.” I laughed and thanked him and said, “I really only did for you what anyone would do.” He then told me the award wasn’t from him, but it was from other students, who I didn’t and don’t know, who appreciated my efforts to provide a safe place to discuss sensitive issues in class.

I had been having a bad day. The kind of day that makes you question what you are doing and why you are doing it. The gesture behind the trophy turned my day around and changed my attitude. The student had no idea what I was going through, and his decision to join with others to “be kind” toward me helped me get across that day’s finish line.

Small gestures can have unseen, out-sized effects.

I am not sure where the idea of “paying it forward” came from, but I know it was popularized by a novel and later a movie of the same name. Maybe the concept is based in the old saying, “what goes around, comes around.” Although that phrase carries negative connotations. If you treat others poorly, eventually, it will catch up with you.

As I write this, I am reminded of the song by Paul McCartney about love songs. The lore of the song says it was written in response to critics who accused him of writing only “silly love songs” after the Beatles broke up. “What’s wrong with that,” McCartney wrote, “I need to know, because here I go, again.”

By this point in the essay you may be thinking; what sappiness. The world is going to be a better place if we all just choose to be kind? Puleeeze!

I am not an optimist by nature. I am not a cynic either, though there are probably those who will tell you that I am. I like to think I am a realist. In answer to the sappy question I would respond with another question: Is there any doubt that the world would be a better place if we all made a deliberate effort to be kind? Think of the alternative. The world would not be a perfect place, but it would — without question — be better.

We are entering year three of a pandemic. It kind of feels as if we are headed toward a new normal on the other side of the worst of it, but we don’t know. We do know that we have all been living under new kinds of pressures in our lives. Pressures that have led to increased isolation, drug and alcohol use, job loss, and mental health challenges.

Whether you are motivated to be kind because it is the right thing to do, or for a more selfish reason — as an investment in getting a return on your effort from the universe — there is no downside to being kind. It takes less energy than being unkind, or uncaring, and it pays off in ways you cannot predict. Not just for you, but for others you will never meet. In that way, being nice becomes not just your personality, it becomes your legacy. If you find my opinion sappy — that’s a fight I’m willing to have all day.

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Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.

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Dean Pagani

Dean Pagani

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.

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