Things are easier said than done, or so the old adage goes, and we couldn't agree more. That's why we do The GOOD 30-Day Challenge (#30DaysofGOOD), a monthly attempt to live better. Our challenge for December? Creative microphilanthropy.
A young woman slid to the floor next to me in the coffee shop, desperation in her eyes. She was talking on her cell phone, I assumed with a parent, and explaining that her purse had been stolen, that she wasn’t anywhere near her apartment, that she didn’t know what she was going to do. Without saying a word, I reached into my wallet, grabbed a $20 bill, and handed it to her. The look in her big eyes as she moved her gaze up to me was, as the cliché goes, priceless.
Would I have done this were I not charged with finding an act of creative microphilanthropy? I’m not honestly sure. Many of the “secret agents” of The Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy have found over the years that it’s not their finances that are most altered by the endeavor, but their attention. As they walk through the world, conscious that they have agreed to give away a small amount of money, they begin to notice things about the people around them and feel more engaged in the suffering they witness. They begin to chew on questions like: Who am I really responsible for? How do I define “stranger”? What role do I want to play in my coffee shop, my neighborhood, my city?
Parker Palmer, the author of In the Company of Strangers, argues that we must look for “the intuitive hunch that may turn into a larger insight, for the glance or touch that may thaw a frozen relationship, for the stranger's act of kindness that makes the world seem hospitable again.” Very often, this is what creative microphilanthropy is all about: It pushes you to have new eyes, to look for moments when you can make the world seem more hospitable, just by responding to need or pain or loneliness in one moment.
One “secret agent” had a moving conversation with a bartender about the financial struggles she was facing as a single mother trying to pay rent and tuition fees, and decided to leave a tip 10 times what was expected. Another “secret agent” had a great chat with a taxi driver about the many miles he’d traveled to come to the U.S. and how much he missed his family; she felt happy thinking that her gigantic tip might help him get back for a visit. Yet another transformed her donation into small change—pennies, nickels, and dimes—and threw them onto elementary school playgrounds before recess. We can’t help wonder if this might have produced a dangerous scramble among the little whippersnappers, but we love the creativity involved.
One pair of “secret agents” started thinking about the value of connection in our overscheduled lives, which led them to create what they call the New York Conversation Exchange, in which they asked, “How much does human interaction cost on the conversation market?” They paid strangers to walk and talk together—extra if they held hands and shared secrets. Watch the amazing bonds that evolved here:
So as you walk through the world this month, stay alert—and if you see strangers in need of a hot drink, some cash, or just an exchange of pleasantries, consider yourself compelled to respond.