The other day I was standing in the crowded New York subway and a man sitting down held up his Daily News and said loudly “Anybody want the paper?”
I actually wanted it but was standing and couldn’t really read it. Around me, a lot of people had earbuds in and didn’t hear him. A couple people smiled at his kindness. No one moved to take the paper.
“Anybody?” he called again. “Want the paper?”
No one moved. The man’s armed dropped and he put the paper in his lap. “Geez,” he said. He looked really disappointed, almost angry.
Later, the train emptied out and I was able to sit in a seat across the car from the man. After a few minutes, I leaned forward and reached my hand towards him. “May I?” I asked.
His whole face lit up. He handed me the paper. He sat upright. He stopped slouching. As I was reading, he caught my eye and gave me a thumbs up sign. When he got off the train, he looked over to me and waved goodbye.
This is a fact: When people, like my friend on the train, have the impulse to do good, give of themselves and help others and that impulse is frustrated, they feel bad. That is why the man looked so crestfallen. If that impulse to do good is frustrated regularly, then we begin to suppress it in order not to have to re-experience the bad feeling of frustration.
On the other hand, if the impulse to do good arises and it is successful, we feel good. We want to do it again. Experiencing success doing good is a big part of what makes benevolent action part of our repetoire.
This is really important to anyone who wants to bring out the good in others–whether you want to encourage others to become vegetarian or you are a sustainability or social responsibility officer in a corporation or a volunteer coordinator in a non-profit.
The first time someone has the impulse to help you or join you, encourage them. Accept their goodwill. No matter how naive or innocent or even unproductive their effort is. Let them have the experience of having a self-originating impulse to do good and have it seen through and appreciated.
Never, ever turn a spontaneous volunteer away, even if you have nothing for them to do. Find something. Because once they have felt frustrated, it will be harder to get that person–the valuable one who came without prompting–to come back a second time then it would be to motivate a whole new person.
If you want people to become vegetarian, say, celebrate them when they say they want to do “meatless mondays” even if they haven’t gone as far as you want them to. If you want someone to go on a climate march, celebrate when they take the much smaller step of signing an online petition.
Let people take their baby steps. Celebrate them. After they have felt good for a while, encourage them to take the next step.
Like that man on the train with the newspaper. Perhaps the next time that man gets on the train with a paper, having had success and felt good once, he will try giving it away again. Maybe then he will also think to give books to children. If that feels good, maybe he will start volunteering in a literacy program. Maybe if that feels good, he will change his career and work on children’s literacy nationwide.
Or we can refuse his paper and listen to our music with our earbuds in while he fumes that no one accepted his offer. And lose his impulse to do good maybe forever.
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