Kindness Without The Credit

Alva Noë recalls the time, driving in California, he went to pay a toll, only to discover the vehicle ahead of her had taken care of it – in his words, he was “the target of a random act of kindness.” What he learned about such acts when he tried to do the same:

Some weeks later, I was driving with my boys and we approached the toll plaza at the Bay Bridge. Cars changed lines repeatedly, cutting each other off, jockeying for position. I formed an intention: If that mini-van behind us — a man and woman up front, two kids in the back — stays put in my lane, I’ll pay their toll. I explained my plan to the kids. They were confused. Why would I do that? I explained what had happened to me. They were excited.

That’s when I realized I’d made a mistake sharing my plan with the kids. I’d given myself an audience and that made my intentions somehow less pure. As if I were doing it so that I could feel good, or we could feel good, or, even worse, so that I’d look good in the eyes of my kids. What’s more, now the kids couldn’t stop looking back. After we went through — I paid the mini-van’s toll as well as my own — my kids kept looking to the car to see their reaction to what we’d done.

So, now a toll was being exacted from the other vehicle after all. My kids and I were letting them know that we had done them a random act of kindness and we expected or hoped for or waited on their reaction. We took pleasure not in doing them a good turn but in, in effect, getting thanked for it. We intruded on their privacy.