As I write there's a swarm of people knocking on the windows of the taxi I'm in. They are saying the English phrases they know -- "Please, sir" and "For the baby" and "Only fifty rupees" -- in unison with the palms-up gesture of want and the hand-to-mouth gesture of need. I'm in a remote part of Rajasthan, India. They are still knocking, harder now and with each thump I feel my white skin mean green, I feel their need pulse through me.
Make no mistake about it: good deeds have the potential to make meaningful and sustainable positive changes in a person's life. Take the story of Ben's Bells, a Tucson-based nonprofit whose mission is "to inspire, educate and motivate each other to realize the impact of intentional kindness and to empower individuals to act according to that awareness, thereby strengthening ourselves, our relationships and our communities."
On March 29, 2002 the founder's 3-year-old son, Ben, died tragically and unexpectedly due to a respiratory condition. Their grieving process, filled with guilt and anger and even embarrassment, took a brutal toll both on their personal psyche and on their faith in humanity. Then, on a difficult day like any other, a stranger held open the door for Jeannette Maré, Ben's mother, so that she could enter a gas station. Boom. That's it. That single act of a few short seconds of kindness rocked her to the core and began to heal her deep wounds.
Now, Ben's Bells has received international coverage for its ability to spread random acts of kindness and to recognize goodness through the simple act of hanging the distinct bells in locations where community-nominated good people will see them.
Ben's Bells has essentially made local the Nobel Peace Prize, and there is simply no way to measure just how much this has changed Tucson for the better. Localizing the Nobel Peace Prize. What kind of impact could this have on communities all over the country? The world? Goodness need not always be recognized, but isn't a community that collectively appreciates and occasionally rewards goodness a stronger community than one that does not?
The good deed of holding the door was good in and of itself, but Jeannette's initiative to transform the awareness of the good she felt within into something applicable to society in general is truly great. The handing over of fifty rupees, the holding of the door -- both have potential to bring change, or be taken for granted or, in the case of the fifty rupees, perpetuate existing or even create new problems.
Christian Bosman, founder of Open Hand, saw the open palms of need in India when he visited friends in Varanasi back in 1996. Call him a social entrepreneur or simply a person hellbent on addressing the roots of need, Christiaan's vision of Open Hand -- a cafe and Indian-made textile manufacturer/retailer, continues to spread throughout India. Its conviction that business can positively impact society if operated in such a way that it "intentionally empowers underprivileged people by operating ethically, providing fair wages and training and contributing to social causes" has caught on.
The stories of those working for Open Hand are worthy of a book unto themselves -- tales of human trafficking and widowed mothers whose husbands gave them HIV before passing away. But as I visited and learned more about the inner workings of their shops I couldn't help but feel the depth of the good they do.
There's nothing inherently wrong with good deeds, we desperately need them, but our increasingly interconnected world is crying out for more Ben's Bells, for more Open Hands, for a kind of good so dynamic and deep that its individual acts are nearly imperceptible, are merely threads woven into the fabric of a truly developing society.