I have a favourite breakfast spot in Chiang Mai. As we’ve been living out of a kitchenless hotel/guesthouse for the past few months, I’ve been forced to obtain sustenance in restaurants in lieu of making my own meals. Hard life, right? I actually inwardly complained about it at first, until I realized how nice it is to have my breakfast prepared for me every morning.
Every once in a while when I’m feeling in a particularly generous mood, I like to randomly pay a stranger’s bill at this favourite breakfast spot of mine. This feeling usually overcomes me when I’m in Chiang Mai, the place I refer to as my spirit city that embraces me each time I return and grants me new gifts. The economics of my decision to pay for a stranger’s meal are based on the average cost of a meal here, which is about $4, so as generous as it sounds, it’s no more than the cost of an imported mango in Canada or a Starbucks latte. Some might say 4 bucks is still 4 bucks, but my mentality regarding money matters has changed significantly over the last eight years since the Great Change and thanks to a special someone in my life who encourages me to be a bit less stingy.
I used to break out into a cold sweat when I thought about how I was going to survive without an employer handing me a paycheck every two weeks. Self-sufficiency was an entirely different series of events back then. It related more to my ability to drag myself out of bed, scrape the ice from my windshield, and endure a day sat at my not-even-big-enough-to-be-called-a-cubicle workstation for 8 painful hours surrounded by cranky women. My rewards were designer jeans, stemless wine glasses, and a retirement savings plan for a certain future. Now it’s about how fast—and more importantly—how well I can spin out ad copy, blogs, and e-books on interesting and personally relevant topics from wherever in the world I choose to live. That’s its own reward, as are trips to very cool second-hand clothing markets hunting for used designer jeans!
I’m quite happy with my circumstances, and as much as I’d like to take full credit for my comfortable position, my will is just a small part of it. The rest is unexplained deliverance. I chose it, but I also didn’t. I am aware of and grateful for my luck in this life.
But as much as we love to read every Tom, Dick, and Harry’s long and personal list of gratitude, I’ll get back to my favourite breakfast spot and the story.
I was having a shitty morning one day, a couple months ago. Yes, a terribly lousy morning, sitting in Thailand on a perfect 28-degree, bird-chirpy day, eating sweet mango, pomelo, and papaya, and sipping fresh hill tribe coffee, all prepared for me by someone else. My post-yoga 10:30 am breakfast extravaganza. Tough, right?
But shitty days are less about circumstances and more about what we choose to see, feel, and think about, assuming we can in fact choose such things anymore than we can choose snowstorms or the size of our feet. I was caught up in some distressing mental snare that was threatening to become a full-day blow-out and I was desperate to prevent it. Loving kindness with oneself, by way of accepting tricky emotions, is always a good place to start, but sometimes, it’s completely undo-able and I prefer to kick myself in the ass for being a spoiled brat. Conjuring up self-compassion when one is not in agreement with her forehead, left big toe, or very state of being is a tricky job to muster. It’s also the very reason we need it. But all seem fruitless attempts, like trying to batten down the hatches when you’re already in the eye of the storm. Better just to wait for calm to return and forgive the wreckage.
Holding compassion for another person is more accessible. In Buddhism there is a practice called metta, in which we extend loving kindness toward ourselves and others during the practice of meditation with the intention to integrate such benevolence into the comings and goings of our daily lives. The ability to feel compassionately toward another person teaches us how to hold it for ourselves. Contrary to what we usually hear––that we must love ourselves before we can love another––I believe self-love grows from loving another person, particularly those people who are hard to love, whether that person is your child, partner, or someone else (if that conjured up the image of someone’s face, don’t worry, the mind’s eye is a private space). Like learning, respiratory viruses, and gossip, love doesn’t happen in solitude.
So in that moment of perfectly unacceptable misery, I took a look around and spotted a young woman sitting alone, deeply engrossed in her phone. A bowl sat empty in front of her, she might have had the same meal as me. She looked to be around 25-30, probably travelling alone, I can’t say, and to be honest, I didn’t spend much time thinking about it. Maybe she was having a great day, maybe not. I could have approached her, talked to her, but loving this stranger from a distance was a safer bet for me on that given day. So, when I went to pay, I told the owner that I would like to pay for her meal too. She paused for a moment, then added the extra cost to my bill.
“Do you know her?” She asked. I replied no, and our dialogue went no further. For me, it was simply a random act of kindness. How nice a surprise is it to discover that a total stranger has picked up your tab without ulterior motive or need for disclosure?
A couple months later, I’m back at my favourite breakfast spot (there having been countless times in between because I eat here every day). This time I was having an absolutely splendid morning in the exact same set of circumstances as the time I’d felt miserable. I’d just finished yoga, had my bowl of abundance and scalding coffee in front of me, and was thoroughly engrossed in a very good book (The War of Art––highly recommended).
At one point, I looked up and spotted a man enter the restaurant. As he sat, he removed his hat and I saw that his hair was thinning just a bit at the crown. Now this is going to sound weird, and maybe it is, I don’t know, but I felt compelled to pull another random act of kindness. It was something about seeing a whispering patch of baldness on this man’s head that made me sense a pure diffidence in this guy, projection or not. So I approached the checkout to pay my bill and asked the owner to include his meal. Her eyes flickered a moment as she recalled the previous time. She pulled back and looked at me with strange countenance. It might have been skepticism but she’s a tricky woman to read. Perhaps she was thinking, why not just give us a bigger tip?
“You again! You know him?”
All at once I was my eight-year-old self with buck teeth and badly-cut bangs. You again. It’s crazy how a single expression from someone can have that effect. How vulnerable we are. I replied no.
“Why do you want to pay for his food? You know last time the girl asked me, why, why, why, and I didn’t know, but she kept asking why.”
I chuckled a little. “There’s no reason,” I said, “I just want to because it’s a nice thing to do sometimes, it’s a nice surprise (and this restaurant is called Nice Kitchen, so it’s appropriate). If he asks just tell him it’s a random act of kindness.” She smiled. All was fine.
The next day I asked her, “so, did he ask why, why, why too?”
Her face broke into a big smile. “He said, ‘oh that’s so nice, please tell her thank you, I would like to say thank you but I’m leaving today…’ He was very happy, thank you.”
I realize there are lots of ways to show kindness that don’t involve dollar bills––or in this case Thai Baht––or surreptitious, but delicious, gestures. I try to do those too. But I like this one, simply because I would appreciate it should it happen to me. And that’s when I realized that random acts of kindness are no less random than the colour of my eyes or the bones in my body. There is something wired into our psychological circuitry that compels us in one way or another to show kindness to a human being and that thing is empathy.
For me, empathy is being in solidarity with another person, with or without interaction, with or without trauma or other hardship, with or without any contact at all. It’s the recognition that another person has the capacity to share all the wonders (and horrors) of the human experience with you:
Great mornings and shitty years. Unfortunate facial features. Overwhelming self-concern. Solo travel and the 30s. Physical pain and emotional anguish. Delicious fruit bowls. The comfy flower-patterned cushion on the chair that sits under the giant plant your head brushes each time you reach forward to take a bite from your bowl of abundance. Thinning hair and a projected desire to hide it in a hat while out walking around.
When we can see ourselves in another’s experience, be it only a flash feeling in a fleeting moment, a kind assumption, or the extended endurance of someone else’s deep, deep pain, that is empathy. We need only to imagine how it might feel to be in someone else’s shoes, and that ability to imagine their experience, in part, comes from our own emotional disposition. That’s why the ability to love oneself starts with loving, or at the very least, noticing another person. And it’s why some seemingly random acts of kindness aren’t really so random after all.