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Patrick Poulin describes a “silent movement of individuals who are doing mindful acts of increasing kindness in this world as a way to try to counteract the more public negative discourse.”

Patrick Poulin, executive director of the International Rescue Committee’s Salt Lake and Missoula offices, told me recently that he’s been protesting incivility and the deep rift cutting through American life. He finds tipping a useful and perhaps unexpected tool of what he jokingly calls “the resistance.”

Poulin is countering the rampant incivility running through so many recent American interactions by tipping a robust 25 percent when he encounters workers in service industries.

He likes to think he’s not alone, that there exists what he described to me as a “silent movement of individuals who are doing mindful acts of increasing kindness in this world as a way to try to counteract the more public negative discourse.”

I’ve seen others on a deliberate crusade to create bright moments. I know a 20-year-old who’s paying her own way through college, but sets aside a little from every paycheck to send a small bouquet of flowers to people she sees struggling with various things, from discouragement to money challenges. She doesn’t have enough to change their trajectory, she tells me, but she can let them know that someone thinks they’re special, that they are visible and cared for. She says she hopes that it matters and somehow lightens their load. And while the small amount of money she spends wouldn’t accomplish much if simply handed over, flowers are a gift of cheer and caring that are likely lacking in the recipient’s situation. If you’ve ever been gifted unexpectedly with flowers, you’ll understand her thinking.

A woman in my neighborhood painstakingly gathers the seeds from her cosmos and other annuals and places them a few dozen at a time in envelopes she tapes to her front picture window with a “take one” note. She uses the Next Door app to let the community know they’re available; you just have to show up and grab them. If you can’t get to her, but you want some, she’ll drop them by — simply because you asked. It doesn’t matter who you are.

Rudeness can start to feel natural if you don’t guard against it.

I have a mechanically talented friend who took it upon himself to fix a college student’s car after it broke down. They weren’t close friends, but he knew she was struggling and needed transportation, so while she was visiting family and pondering what to do, he used his excellent skills to clear a bit of rubble from her life. He often does that kind of thing.

None of these folks are asking if their beneficiaries are like-minded. And while these kindnesses seem unlikely to build bridges with reach enough to span all the divides that appear to run through so many of our interactions, they could have surprising reach.

Rudeness can start to feel natural if you don’t guard against it. I’ve moved from being horrified by the lack of civility onto the low ground that I not long ago found so disturbing. I can snap and snipe with the best of them. And while I value kindness, it’s not a reflex. Incivility is a bit like swearing. If you’re around people who do it a lot and you don’t take care, it’s an easy habit to pick up. But kindness could be reflexive, too. We choose the muscles we develop.

5 comments on this story

Since my conversation with Patrick, I’ve been paying attention and trying to be more intentional in my response. If I think someone’s behaving badly or is what I’d consider wrong-headed or they simply make me mad, I am trying to take care not to send mean looks and thoughts their way. I am forcing myself — and sometimes it's a genuine chore — to instead wish them well, to send them off with a prayer they’ll be blessed in some way.

It’s not changing them. It’s changing me. That’s really where kindness begins.