It’s an ordinary weekday, and I’m juggling ordinary duties in my home ofﬁce: researching and writing, making phone calls, doing a load or two of laundry. Amid these tasks, I use my email network to help a mom track down a dog that recently bit her child. I pop across the street to clear up an elderly widow’s computer problems. I mix up batter and throw a batch of chocolate cupcakes into the oven, to be given away to some rather reclusive neighbours. None of these acts takes long, and none is difﬁcult or costly.
Not long ago, I would have been surprised by how easy it is to lend a hand, brighten a day or make a difference. But now I’m not. That’s because I achieved my goal of doing a good deed every day for 50 days straight. Am I some kind of bleeding heart? No way. Was a good deed a day a daunting concept? You bet.
Most of my days are hectic. I’m a hands-on mom to Emily, now ten. My husband, Ian, and I work full-time. When I’m not at my desk, earning a living as a freelance writer, I’m cooking, cleaning, paying bills. I take my daughter to school, choir practice and swimming lessons. I provide assistance daily to my husband, who is quadriplegic. Like millions of other Canadians, I’m short on time and careful with spending.
It’s a sad reality that many of us ﬁnd ourselves just too busy to contribute to our communities or the world at large. For a long time, I, too, believed it cost too much in time, money and energy to make a real difference. But all that changed when I started my good-deed-a-day project. In the spring of 2006, I was inspired by several high-proﬁle personal challenges, like the Julie/Julia Project, in which a blogger wrote about cooking 524 Julia Child recipes in a single year-the inspiration for the ﬁlm Julie & Julia. I considered a similar challenge for myself. My daughter was my primary inspiration. She already knew we supported a foster girl in Egypt, donated our used clothing, gave pocket change to door-to-door canvassers for charity. But I wanted to show her we could do more, so I resolved to do a good deed a day for 50 days.
The ﬁrst week, I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. I browsed the Internet for ideas. When I stepped out for errands or meetings, I looked for potential acts of kindness to ﬁll my daily quota. One day, I cleared a handicapped-parking spot of shopping carts. Another day, I guided a blind man in the subway station. He beamed as he thanked me.
Sometimes, I had to go out of my way to ﬁnd something kind to do, which meant straying from my comfort zone. I brought ﬂowers from my garden to a local nursing home. I gathered up litter at the playground, disconcertedly aware of other families watching. I could only hope I was sparking ideas in others.
After just a few days, though, I found it easier than I’d expected. I felt almost guilty for the smallness, the simpleness, of the deeds I was doing. I was slotting them into our jam-packed lifestyle in a way that suited me. But wasn’t that the point? That good deeds don’t have to be taxing? And even though most of what I’d done was small potatoes – I hadn’t funded an orphanage or saved a life with the Heimlich manoeuvre – somehow I knew I was making a difference.
Of course, being a do-gooder wasn’t without hazards. One day, on a street-car, I was squatting to pick up newspapers when a woman pushed past, scraping the top of my head with her oversized handbag. I returned home with a headache, but still a sense of a job well done. Other good deeds went ﬂat.
I went to donate blood, but after much fruitless poking at my inadequate veins, I was sent away. Another time, I tried to give food to a panhandler, only to have it rejected because she was vegetarian. (She gladly accepted some coins instead.) But some deeds took on a life of their own. I tracked down my high school creative-writing teacher and sent him a letter, thanking him for his encouragement all those years ago. He wrote an enthusiastic note back, thus kindling an ongoing friendship.
Every evening at the dinner table, I described that day’s good deed to Emily and Ian. The idea took hold and soon we were swapping stories. My daughter talked about the litter cleanup she’d instigated at school. My husband described helping at the scene of an elderly lady’s fall on the sidewalk – he got a passerby to call 9-1-1, then comforted the woman until help arrived. Even my father called long-distance to report his morning’s quirky good deed-holding up six lanes of traffic at a city intersection while a mother duck led two ducklings across the road!
Emily began sharing what I’d started as a personal quest. On a walk home from school, she marched over to a neighbour’s pot of geraniums, which had toppled in the wind, and set it right. “That was my good deed for the day!” she exclaimed. Another day, she helped me collect donations from our neighbours for the food bank. We dropped off the food and, as we drove away, Emily announced grandly that she wanted to work there one day.
By the last week, I knew I’d changed, too. At the outset, I hadn’t been entirely convinced I could do a good deed every day. Now it was practically second nature. I now felt more alert to what was going on around me, what cried out to be done. I felt a greater responsibility to take action when I saw a need, instead of looking the other way. I felt as though I’d awakened, somehow.
On day 50, I congratulated myself for rising to the challenge. I had done it! More importantly, I learned that three quarters of my good deeds had taken less than 15 minutes to do. Three quarters of them had cost no money. And yet these acts had surely made an impact.
On day 51, somewhat to my own surprise, I felt compelled to throw away litter left in a public washroom. As it turned out, 50 days of good deeds had established a habit in me that has continued ever since. I now do many more good deeds than I used to, as does the rest of my family. When I tell people about my 50 good deeds, I often hear stories of kindnesses other people have performed. It seems most of us thrill at being able to make a difference. Why do we have such a strong urge to help others? One theory says that
a more caring human is likely to do a better job raising his children to adulthood than a human who only pretends to care. So it follows that evolution favours kinder, more compassionate people.
I like that idea. And I know now that everyone has it in them to perform a simple good deed every day.