“Can we talk now?” Putting Kindness Front and Center

Post by Josh Urban for the Kind Kindred series.

photo of Josh’s “beacon tree”

A musician’s findings from a tour of kindness

Winter on the Way

For many people, myself included, the holiday season can be a little tricky. As a little kid, I was very fortunate, and couldn’t fathom how the time of year could be sad. “But mom, Santa comes! Why wouldn’t anyone like it?”

But Life happens. We grow up a bit. People die, fade away, and sadness sometimes seems overwhelming.

Of the faiths that celebrate a holiday during the month of December, a common thread of breathtaking beauty is the symbol of light in the darkness. For me, it has many personal meanings. One such time was when my grandfather died about two weeks before Christmas some years ago. I distinctly remember looking at the Christmas tree a few days after he had passed, my eyes blurry with tears, seeing those colored lights stream out into the bleak night. The season seemed, and seems, to be a dance of light and darkness, of hope, despair, generosity and greed, the biting cold, and warmth of friendly hearths. All in all, it’s a poignant time that stirs emotions in many.

The Kindness Exchange

This year, I decided to do something to kindle some extra light. I launched The Kindness Exchange around a simple social media idea. Here’s how the stage was set:

1. Go do something nice for someone.
2. Post it back online using the hashtag #KindnessExchange
3. This makes it searchable, even if we’re not connected, I can find it, print it out, and hang the post on a lit “beacon tree” in my front yard – a literal light in the darkness.

In the meantime, I would be taking my music around a regional tour, playing in places that didn’t usually have it…hospitals, street corners, nursing homes, homeless shelters, and even the psych ward of a veteran’s hospital.

I was excited about the idea that people could participate without spending any money, that it worked with all faiths, and most of all, tied into something I call The Clarence Effect. In the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart is about to commit suicide on Christmas eve, believing that he’s worth more dead than alive. Suddenly, he sees a man drowning in the river. The call of humanity sounding louder than his personal sorrow, he jumps in to save what turns out to be his guardian angel. When he questions the angel Clarence later as to how he ended up in the river in the first place, Clarence replies “Saving you!”

Perhaps the best way to save ourselves is to save someone else.

So, guitars ready, and a snazzy Twitter ticker set up on my website courtesy of my kind and talented web-designer brothers, I was ready to rock. “Worldwide audience participation time! We’re going to light up the night with kindness!”

Uncovering the Problem

“You’ve got a problem.” It was my mom on the phone, and she had seen someone post the question that would change everything.

“Won’t I sound like I’m bragging if I talk about the nice things that I do?”

Over the next few days, I pondered, discussed, wrote, and tried to figure out the answer to the essence of the question:

Can we talk about kindness? Can we talk about the nice things we do without sounding like arrogant fools?

It struck me as another oddity of the world. It’s socially acceptable to complain, Nancy Grace is a wealthy lady with an endless stream of gruesome news to obsess over, court shows rule daytime TV, gossip is expected, and yet we feel self-conscious to tell people about nice things that we do.

Is kindness inherently a discrete activity out of tact for the recipient’s feelings and societal norms? Or are we just not used to talking about it? Perhaps it’s how we word things?

If it’s a problem of language and culture, perhaps it can be solved with language and culture.

Jumping in

It was too late to quit – and besides, I was ready to rock! Plus, sometimes the best way to figure something out is to use the whole world as a laboratory.

So, I did, and so did at least 400 other people who in one way or another found their way to the effort. The project took off running. Lots of new friends joined the Facebook group, the media was very helpful, people were tweeting, sharing, blogging, talking, and most importantly, doing nice things for their fellow humans.

It seemed as if the project was a perfect excuse for people to express their naturally kind and giving nature, just as Monday morning is an easy (and justifiable!) excuse to be grumpy. It was a hub of sorts, and something to be part of. It’s easy to feel like you’re the only nice person in an often harsh world. To see a tree covered with paper stars, on which were written the good deeds of an entire elementary school, was inspiring and connecting to say the least. Hearing the patients spontaneously sing Christmas carols on the psych ward made me feel the most holiday spirit I’ve felt in a long time, and reading accounts of good deeds from all over was not only heartwarming, but exciting in the fact that everyone involved was impacting the world for the better. We were actually changing how we looked at things – we were happening to the season, and we were creating a world that we wanted to see.

An important insight for me was how it made kindness a mode of operation – a positive sort of peer pressure, if you will. It made it the thing to do, much as a working out at a gym pushes one to exercise harder since everyone else’s actions create a motivational cycle.

And the concern of it being bragging? It all seemed to work out OK. Turns out that for the crew, it was a matter of wording. Presenting it with excitement for the act of kindness, with delicacy for the recipient, with humility, gratitude, and sincerity turned a tricky subject into one of inspiration. Some people stayed anonymous, and that was perfectly fine, too. To each their own.

The world is hungry to hear about all the good things happening, and the good news far outweighs any concern in the format of delivery. It’s cold and dark out there. The “kindness comrades” showed me that there’s no need to hide the fire that can save us all. They made kindness a priority. They made kindness cool. And everyone ate it up. As a matter of fact, even though the tour officially ended in January, the Facebook group is still rockin’ on. Feel free to join HERE

In closing

This idea of making kindness something that we talk about as much as we grumble about gas prices is something that could change the world. What if it was the cool thing to talk about, and we learned how to do so in a way that was tactful? What if it became the new bragging, but in a good sort of way? Hey, look at how many people post selfies. (I do it all the time!) We like to talk about what we do. What if we could harness that power? Let’s talk about the good stuff. And let’s do some extra special things so we have something good to one-up our friends with.

If you have any ideas about how you might tap this force, or how I can make the next tour (launching November 20th, 2014) all the more effective, please let me know. I’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime…keep on shining. And keep on rockin’ the world. We’re all watching.

I’m Josh. I’m a musician. I recently wrapped up a music project centered around the creation of kindness in the holiday season – and unwittingly uncovered a cultural puzzle that I think can be solved by language to dramatically better the world in which we live. 
The puzzle is this: 
How can we talk about the good things that we do – without bragging?

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