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The Kindness Contagion

The Kindness Contagion

Slurs and hateful language fill the air. Bullies push people around on playgrounds and in workplaces. Drivers cut you off … and then make obscene gestures.

What in the world can you do?

Be kind.

Steven Petrow is a writer who lives in North Carolina. He was recently waiting in a long line at his favorite bakery, a shop which makes amazing scones. Watching the people ahead of him pluck the delicious scones out of the glass case, he worried that the bakery would run out. But when he got to the counter, he saw that there was one left, so he pointed and said, “I’ll take that.”

No sooner had he spoken than the guy behind him shouted, “Hey, that’s my scone! I’ve been waiting in line for 20 minutes!” Petrow knew that the man had been waiting, but a line is a line.

What do you think Petrow said to the man? He could have declared, “Sorry, it’s mine!” He had every right to do so. Instead, he asked him, “Would you like half?” The man was shocked into silence, but after a moment he accepted the offer and made a suggestion of his own: “Why don’t I buy another pastry and we can share both?”

Then they sat down on a nearby bench to share their pastries.

The two men had almost nothing in common in terms of jobs, age, political views or marital status. They were strangers. But they shared a moment of connection and simple kindness. “I felt happy,” says Petrow, “and, wanted more of that feeling.”

Another story of unexpected kindness is found in Luke’s gospel.

It begins when a lawyer stands up to “test Jesus,” revealing himself to be an opponent of Jesus, or at least a skeptic. “Teacher,” says the lawyer, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 25). Although there is no indication that the lawyer is a bully or a jerk, he is clearly looking for an opportunity to gain the upper hand.

Jesus responds in a very sensible and matter-of-fact way, asking him, “What is written in the law?”

The lawyer quotes Deuteronomy and Leviticus, pointing to the commandments to love the Lord and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus commends him, saying, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (vv. 26-28).

But the lawyer senses that he is losing his competitive advantage. Wanting to come out on top, he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (v. 29). He fully expects Jesus to describe his neighbor as a person of similar race, religion, job, age, political views or marital status.

Instead, Jesus tells a story: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead” (v. 30). The lawyer is probably thinking, “Okay, Jesus is saying that this man is my neighbor — he’s a good Jewish man, walking from Jerusalem to Jericho.”

Then the plot thickens. “Now by chance a priest was going down that road,” says Jesus; “and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side” (vv. 31-32). The lawyer scratches his chin, thinking about the people he knows who never get their hands dirty by helping neighbors in need. He has seen them in action: observant Jews who consistently fail to love their neighbors as themselves.

Next comes the curveball: “But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity” (v. 33). The lawyer didn’t see that pitch at all: Jesus is speaking kindly of a stranger, and not just any kind of stranger, but a Samaritan — a half-Jew who deserves only slurs and hateful language. Where is Jesus going with this?

Jesus says that the Samaritan went to the Jewish man “and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend’” (vv. 34-35). Wow, thinks the lawyer, that is some really impressive kindness.

Then Jesus looks the lawyer square in the eye and asks him, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (v. 36). The lawyer is shocked into silence. He thought that Jesus was talking about the Jewish man as the neighbor, but now he is clearly describing the Samaritan as the neighbor. The lawyer can only say, “The one who showed him mercy.”

And then Jesus says to him, “Go and do likewise” (v. 37).

  • Go and show kindness to the Samaritan half-Jew who is the victim of slurs and hateful language.

  • Go and help the refugee family struggling to find their place in American society.

  • Go and split your scone with a person of a different age, political view or marital status.

  • Go and do likewise.

Usually, when discussing this story, we ask the wrong question. We ask, “Who is my neighbor?”

A better question: “Who is a ‘Good Samaritan’?”

We typically have used the term “Good Samaritan” to describe anyone who puts time and effort into helping a person in need. This is not a bad thing: Such efforts certainly deserve commendation.

But a true Good Samaritan is someone of a different cultural caste who helps a person outside of that ethnic circle. The term applies to an outsider who helps an insider, not the other way around. If the parable were to be written today, it would feature a Christian being helped by a Hindu, a Muslim or a Buddhist. The outsider status of the Samaritan is what makes the story so powerful, taking it to a new level

The essential aspect of a true Good Samaritan is the difference in ethnicity, or cultural status. So white-on-white charity does not involve a Good Samaritan. Neither does black-on-black or brown-on-brown. Charitable actions in these cases are surely wonderful and needed. But they don’t involve a Good Samaritan. They simply involve good people — people like God has called us to be.

But when acts of kindness cross ethnic and cultural lines, Samaritanship comes into play.

The law imposes stiff penalties when a hate crime has been committed.

This is why we also applaud with perhaps more enthusiasm a “love action” when it occurs across racial or cultural lines.

In addition, we have failed to see the joy that the Samaritan found in his helpfulness.

When we hear that the Samaritan paid the innkeeper to provide lodging and nursing, we think, “What a generous guy.” But the reality is that the Samaritan wanted to help the wounded man. It gave him joy. As Steven Petrow said after splitting his scone, “I felt happy and, frankly, wanted more of that feeling.”

Melanie Rudd, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Houston, has a name for the boost that we get from being kind: “helper’s high.” She is speaking about the warm glow we feel when we help other people and see them happy. What is interesting is that Rudd calls this kind of giving “impure altruism.” She sees it as impure not because it is bad, but because it benefits the giver as well as the receiver. “It’s hard to do something truly altruistic,” she says, “because we always feel good about it ourselves after we’ve performed the act of kindness.”

Yes, that’s right. The kindness of other people rubs off on us and makes us more kind. The helpfulness of the Good Samaritan advanced a movement of helpfulness that continues to the present day.

A kindness contagion.

From a theological perspective, the source of all this goodness is God. Writing to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul says that “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”

In other words, God’s generosity rubs off on you, making you more generous. And then, says Paul, “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity” (2 Corinthians 9:8, 11). You’ll be enriched — you’ll get a “helper’s high.”

Thousands of years after Jesus and Paul, modern research is confirming this contagion. Stanford assistant professor of psychology Jamil Zaki has spent a number of years studying how kindness can be transmitted. “Kindness itself is contagious,” he writes in Scientific American. “It can cascade across people, taking on new forms along the way.” He has found that people make larger charitable gifts when they believe that others are being generous. And in situations where people cannot afford to donate, one individual’s kindness can inspire others to spread positivity in other ways.

One week before his scone-sharing experience, Steven Petrow was waiting in line to buy a coffee when a customer in front of him whom he didn’t know and to whom he hadn’t talked, told the barista that he’d pay for Petrow’s drink. The man said that he did that from time to time because it made him feel good.

Petrow thanked him profusely, feeling as though he’d been given an unexpected and precious gift. And later he wondered: “Was my willingness to share a scone some days later somehow related to this gift of coffee?”

Probably. “When we see other people around us acting in generous or kind or empathic ways,” says Zaki, “we will be more inclined to act that way ourselves.”

It’s the kindness contagion. Started by God, advanced by the Good Samaritan and continuing to enhance our lives today.

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