Thursday, 18 August 2011

After you!

Last week, I was driving on a country road well after the sun had set, when I came to a one lane bridge.  I could see a set of headlights approaching from the opposite direction, so in the interest of safety, and common courtesy, I flashed my lights, signalling to the other driver an invitation for him to cross the bridge first.
Usually in instances such as this one, it would be expected of the other driver to gesture to me with a friendly wave of thanks as he passed, to indicate his gratitude for allowing him to cross the bridge ahead of me. However, given that this incident happened after sunset, it was not possible for me to see inside of the cockpit of his automobile, and therefore impossible for me to discern whether or not the other driver had attempted a gesture of gratitude. Interestingly, some of the first thoughts that ran through my head as I continued driving were along the lines of, why did I let him go first if I couldn’t even enjoy the satisfaction of receiving a wave of thanks?
In the grand scheme of things, it probably would have made very little difference if I hadn’t been so kind, and opted to cross the bridge ahead of the other driver. However, the question comes to mind, why do we practice what we like to consider simple acts of kindness? You may say it’s to make others feel good. Perhaps my allowing him to cross the bridge first did make the other driver feel good, but if that’s really why I chose to do so, then the follow-up question should be asked, why I like to make others feel good. I think most would answer this question similarly; making others feel good makes me feel good.
I’m just full of questions today. Would you continue to practice simple acts of kindness if the gratitude of others was never shown? In other words, would you still hold the door for someone even if they didn’t appreciate it, or if they failed to show their appreciation? Maybe the reason we feel good when we help others out is that we like the feeling of power it gives us. The wave of thanks we receive when we stop traffic in order to allow an old lady pull out of the roadside parking space in front of the bakery makes us feel good because we feel powerful in the sense that the wave indicates that we made the old lady feel good. “I made that old lady feel so thankful that she was compelled to express it to me,” says your subconscious. “I have power over her, and having power over others makes me feel good”.
I think the principle also works from the perspective of the old lady, or the guy I let pass on the bridge. The old lady’s subconscious is saying, “I know that if I give a wave of thanks, that guy who let me out will feel really good about himself, and I will have made him feel good. I’m powerful!”  Would she still express her thanks if there was a chance I wouldn’t appreciate the gesture, or if she knew I was likely not to see it? I’m reminded the scene from an episode of Seinfeld in which George drops a tip in a tip jar, but it goes unnoticed, so he attempts to take back the tip so he can drop it in again, so that this time the server will notice it.
Don’t become disillusioned with all of humanity though. It might seem like what I’m saying is that humans are only self interested and there is no genuine kindness in the world. As long as both the old lady who I let pull out of her parking space and I feel good about ourselves at the end of the interaction, what’s wrong with that?  So next time you have the opportunity to extend a simple courtesy to your fellow man, jump on the opportunity, and if one is extended to you, be sure to indicate your gratitude. Either way, you’ll walk away feeling powerful and fulfilled.

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