How we can extinguish fear and bring back random acts of kindness

I remember very early on in Lasagna Love – when we had no website, and I was still taking requests by Facebook messenger – a woman messaged me right after her delivery. She said: “I’ve never experienced something more amazing in my life”. And while that was meant to be a message of gratitude, it also inspired sadness. Since that day we’ve received message after message with the same theme: receiving a home-cooked lasagna is the kindest thing someone has ever done.

Does anyone else feel like kindness has somehow unwoven itself from the fabric of our communities? I have memories from when I was a little kid of more people saying hi on the street, more people offering to carry groceries to the car. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a small town, or maybe – like the characters in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris – I’m simply romanticizing the past. But it does feel that over time, kindness is becoming less common.

Why is that? I’m a firm believer that if we can understand the “why”, we can change it. So: I reflected on my own experience and the experiences that have been shared with me since Lasagna Love started. Here’s what I learned, and I’m sharing it in the hopes that it lights a similar spark of self-awareness in others.

“I don’t want to offend anyone.” There’s a strong culture of independence in this country, which is beautiful in so many ways. But it seems a downside is emerging: the instinct to be kind to a stranger has been replaced by a fear of offending. Sometimes this fear is simply perceived, but other times it’s rooted in experience. I still remember going to the mall with my high school boyfriend, who attempted to hold the door for another woman. She stopped short, looked at him, and said very curtly: “I can do that myself.” This well-intentioned display of independence-cum-feminism – any many similar actions – may have the unintended consequence of making someone second-guess whether they go on to offer the kindness to the next stranger. And the next. Think about it: this happened over 20 years ago, and the memory is still clear in my mind. I can see the dingy tile in the mall vestibule, feel the crispness in the autumn air, make out the look on the woman’s face. How many doors have we not held, for fear of offending?

“I’m afraid of being judged.” Even now, after delivering lasagnas for almost a year, I still feel an anxiety when I offer help or kindness. It turns out I’m not alone! Just the other day one of our Lasagna Chefs asked if anyone else felt nervous when they dropped off a meal, and dozens of volunteers replied with a resounding “yes!”. Mostly, they were fears of the family not liking their lasagna. As humans we don’t like the feeling of rejection and will take action to avoid it; even if that means curbing our instinct for kindness based on the small chance that someone might pass judgement on us.

“It doesn’t feel like my community.” Many cities and towns have become increasingly transient. Social media has taken the humanity out of human connection. Our hunger for independence has focused us inward. All of this means that we no longer feel the bond to our community that, as a society, we used to. We often don’t even know our neighbors, which, in light of the above-mentioned fear of offending or judgement, makes it more difficult to offer those neighbors kindness. Our communities are digital, or even nonexistent. Without that bond, our natural instinct to help and protect our tribe – an instinct that used to be essential for survival – has no impetus.

Does any of this feel familiar to you? It does to me! Somewhere along the line, we’ve become uncomfortable with kindness. But we don’t have to be – we’re in control of our feelings. Sure, we may offend one person, but we won’t offend the other dozen. And sure, we might feel a bit of anxiety as we start to reach out to strangers, but the way to change that is to just keep going. And even if we don’t know our neighbors, I think COVID has shown us that lack of community makes it even more important to reach out and connect.

As I write all of this, I’m inspired. I’m inspired because I see a longing for change. And I see the actual change. A strong desire in the tens of thousands of people involved in Lasagna Love to do something differently. Story after story of everyday people striving to help others in the face of the pandemic. Shows like Some Good News, and viral videos of people engaging in random acts of kindness. Tomorrow is actually National Random Acts of Kindness Day – a day I didn’t even know existed until this year! Check in tomorrow to see what Lasagna Love has in store, and let’s see the impact we can have if we unite behind kindness as the new normal.