Recently, I was thanked by a co-worker for some work I had done for him. His verbal expression of gratitude, while brief, was somewhat more than the ordinary “thanks” or even “thanks a lot!” He said, “Wow, you’ve really helped me! You’ve made a real difference in the outcome of this case. Thanks!” Soon thereafter we concluded our short and most certainly insignificant telephone conversation.
But was it really insignificant? My friend will never know the extent to which his heartfelt compliment and expression of sincere appreciation has benefited others. I’m sure he knows by his own experience that I must have felt good when I heard his words. But I don’t suppose he would have taken the time to consider that when I went home that night I was more cheerful than I might have been had he not been so kind to me. And, my happy disposition manifested itself in a pleasant evening with my wife and children. Their smiles and laughter told me that my good cheer contributed to theirs. As they called or visited with friends later in the evening, the good feelings were passed along and the circle of influence widened. Like ripples from a pebble tossed into a pond, the effects of my friend’s small act of kindness are felt by an ever increasing number of people as time goes on.
Admittedly, it is impossible for mortals to discern the precise amount of good one such act of kindness does amidst the infinite interactions of billions of people. Because of this, we lack the perspective to properly value such things as a smile, a word of encouragement, a “small” act of service. Conversely, we also underestimate the negative effects of a frown, a harsh word or compliment withheld, or indifference to another’s “mere” inconvenience. Yet, consider the significance of the fact that if one person is made happier by another’s kindness and no one else is harmed by it, the quantum of happiness in the world has increased. This then begs the question: Is it possible to benefit one without hurting another? Absolutely!
Kindness freely given brings happiness to the one who extends it as well as to the one who receives. For example, by being cheerful, I do myself no harm. I increase my own well being while benefiting my companions. “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine…” (Proverbs 17:22). An act of kindness can heal a breach in a relationship, blessing the lives of both parties. I discovered this for myself one snowy day.
Some years ago I allowed myself to come to the belief that one of my associates had wronged me. I harbored hard feelings for him for over a year and try as I might I just couldn’t seem to forgive and forget what I believed he had done to me. Then one day a storm dumped about six inches of snow on our company’s employee parking lot. I left work about 15 minutes before closing time in order to remove the snow from my secretary’s car. She had recently injured her leg in an automobile accident and I feared she might slip and fall while attempting to perform this task herself. After brushing the snow off her car, I walked towards my own vehicle. Just as I was about to walk past my associate’s car, the thought struck me that I should sweep the snow off it as well. At first I remonstrated with myself, arguing that there were others of my co-workers whose cars needed cleaning and who were “more deserving” of the favor. Yet, the impulse to clean his car would not yield to my rationalizations against it. So, I did the deed. Amazingly, when I was finished I felt incredibly good. All the way home, I felt good. Over the next few weeks, I began to feel better about my associate and even went out of my way to be friendlier to him. Finally, over the course of the next few months my resentment dissipated and the desired forgiveness and peace found place in my heart. Now what is interesting is that my friend never knew that I was the one who had brushed the snow off his car that day and so, never had occasion to thank me.
In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma teaches his son Helaman that in the economy of Heaven, things we often consider to be small and insignificant are of great importance:
Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise. And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls. (Alma 37:6 – 7)
Thus, we may find at some future date that God is not much concerned with the greatness of our accomplishments. It seems likely that He will be far more interested in the “small” acts of kindness we have rendered to others day in and day out: The smile, the cheerful greeting, the note of appreciation, the helping hand with a heavy load, the snow removed from a neighbor’s car, and the others of the countless ways we cheer and bless our fellow man.
Perhaps nowhere is the application of this principle more valuable and more needed than in marriage. President Gordon B. Hinckley has said on a number of occasions: “If you will make your first concern the comfort, the well-being, and the happiness of your companion, sublimating any personal concern to that loftier goal, you will be happy…” (Teachings, p. 329) His marriage of 67 years to Marjorie Pay exemplified that ideal.
Over the years, as I have counseled with couples contemplating divorce, I have observed that in each case the marriage partners have for some time failed to do the “little things” to enrich their relationship and cultivate their love. The daily “I love you’s,” hugs, kisses, compliments and even smiles have ceased. These have been replaced by constant criticism and lack of affection. I have encouraged couples interested in saving their marriages to begin the process by doing or saying one kind thing to their spouse each day. I tell them to do it in spite of their feelings. It is not uncommon for couples to report that after having done this for a while, they actually began to feel like doing it and instinctively increased the frequency of their acts of kindness towards each other. Thus, by “small means” a marriage is revitalized, literally bringing about the “salvation of many souls.”
Sometimes we allow ourselves to become dissatisfied with our lives because we feel we have done nothing great. We compare our station in life to the rich and famous. Perhaps, born of a more noble desire, we wish we could do some great service for humanity, or perform an act of heroism. Our attitude is somewhat like that of Naaman, the leper, who protested when the prophet Elisha instructed him to immerse himself in the Jordan River to be cleansed of his disease. Naaman was prepared to sacrifice his physical health to his pride by refusing to do such a menial thing. Fortunately for Naaman he saw the wisdom in his servant’s timeless counsel:
“My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? How much rather then, when he saith to thee, wash, and be clean? Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean. (2 Kings 5:13 – 14)
So it is with our happiness and that of those around us. It is seldom purchased by doing “some great thing,” but by daily installments of small acts of kindness, civility and good cheer. Said Mother Teresa: “We can do no great thing. We can only do small things with great love.”
Elliot K. Morris is president of the Stansbury Park Utah Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is employed as staff legal counsel for Workers Compensation Fund in Salt Lake City. He earned his B.A. and M.B.A. degrees at Brigham Young University and his Juris Doctor degree at the University of Utah College of Law. He and his wife, Doris are the parents of five daughters. They have lived in Stansbury Park, since buying their first home there in 1982.