This morning I woke up from a really scary nightmare in which a murderer who had the same voice and disposition as the dog Doug from the movie "Up" was trying to stab my friend Molly and me with a knife in a dark suburban neighborhood. When I woke up, I was traumatized and felt certain that actual death was imminent. Alexis said, "Let's go to a coffee shop." I thought, "I might as well. It might be the last coffee shop I ever go to, what with all the soft-spoken murderers just wandering the streets."
We packed a bag and went to this little coffee shop right by my parents' apartment with two tables and a forty-something proprietor who was selling six different kinds of cheese pies (!!!). I ordered Greek coffee, which I love for novelty reasons, but which for practical reasons can be described as coffee-flavored mud with some hot water sitting on top. Alexis got a cappuccino (novelty is lost on her) and a cup of Greek yogurt (which I guess is a little redundant, but OK). The proprietor had glittery blue eyes and tight jeans, and he spoke wonderful English. His shop is perched right on the cusp of the American university where my parents spent the semester working, so his primary patrons were groggy, zitty college kids with Patagonia sweaters and Birkenstocks. In other words, Alexis and I fit right in.
Ten minutes into our Coffee Shop Time (which involved, American-ly, journal-writing and sketch-book-sketching), the proprietor brought us the most beautiful, flaky chocolate croissant, with hot chocolate sauce drizzled on top, like it was a fucking scene out of "Eat, Pray, Love." He had cut it into to four pieces, so we could avoid ravenously tearing at it like animals. We just gawked at him as if to say, "For US?!" The man just said, "It's for me. It's for me."
AWESOME. FREE BEAUTIFUL CROISSANT. The thing is, this free beautiful croissant was better than finding $20 on the ground, or even than winning a raffle contest on a boat. (I only bring this boat raffle up as a possibility because in Belize I won a raffle contest on a boat. It felt pretty good. It did NOT feel as good as getting the free beautiful croissant.) The free beautiful croissant had the added benefit of being a random act of kindness.
Random acts of kindness are rampant this season, maybe because we are all forced to watch many different versions of "A Christmas Carol" over and over again. (The best version is the Muppet version, no argument.) Maybe it's just because it's cold and dark outside and people want to distract themselves from Seasonal Affective Disorder (read: "Please turn on all the lights. I will be watching reruns of Seinfeld for the next 750 hours, thank you.") Anyway, people love giving stuff during the holidays, and that's great.
I say that's great, because study after study shows that paying it forward makes everyone feel better, universally speaking. Psychology Today explains why with a Stanford University Study done in 2006. A similar University of British Columbia study drew the exact same conclusions last year, and health blogger Priya Advani did some good summarizing of the research surrounding the reasons behind those results for Huffington Post. No one is really arguing with the health benefits of kindness. They're everywhere, and they're outstandingly proven.
Sometimes kindness means you give the groggy-looking Americans a free chocolate croissant early in the morning Just Because. (My parents, being my parents, found a wine shop about a block from their apartment in Greece and frequented it, mostly to hang out with this kissy gray-faced man named Giorgio, who gave them lots and lots of free wine in exchange only for their gratitude. Giving stuff away seems to be something that Greek people understand better than American people. Although it also might be that Greek people can spot American tourists who are excited to spend money in authentic Greek establishments. I wish it was the former though, so that's the world I choose to live in.) Sometimes it's simpler. Or more complicated. I should explain.
I struggle to be generous with my time.
I am often too excited about The Next Thing I'm Going To Write or The Next Thing I'm Going To Draw or What I Want To Read that I am not fully present with the people I love. I don't completely listen when they are telling me about their days. I let my mind wander when they are expressing their troubles. Sometimes being generous just means letting go of your own baggage -- deadlines, dreams, desires, whatever -- to pick up someone else's for a while.
My roommate Derek likes to say that the great weight of the world is too heavy for any of us to carry on our own. We all try, and fail. True generosity is being willing to hold someone else's weight with them; to truly value what they have to say; to be engaged in their existence, not because you have anything to gain from it, but from the deepest, most generous space in your heart.
This is the great chocolate croissant that we all want to keep for ourselves: our time. And I wonder at the health benefits of giving it out more freely.
Just before I left for Greece, I listened to a talk about the evolution of generosity, and was confronted with just how stingy and selfish I can be with my time. I came home, and even though there was this-and-that-and-this-and-that to get done, I sat down and talked with Derek for a while. He is wise and funny, and when I took the time to be with him and really listen to what he had to say, I felt better.
You only get the one life. I guess I'm saying that beautiful croissants are better enjoyed with people you love.