Practicing kindness for kindness' sake

Today, I thought I'd tap into my intellectual grandiosity to present a philosophical theory. A question of id vs. ego, thought vs soul, good vs evil. Or maybe, if I could entice you to go deeper into the discussion: Phoebe vs Joey.

In an episode of the TV series, "Friends," Joey states that true altruism doesn't exist, because in doing something nice for another person, the benefactor himself gets positive feedback or psychological warm fuzzies for doing so. Any act of kindness, even anonymous or random, then, benefits both the giver and the receiver. This, according to Joey, is not selfless and thus not altruistic. The rest of the episode involves Phoebe attempting selfless acts of altruism - and failing.

To Joey and Phoebe I say: So what? So what if it feels good to be kind, to do something random or go out of your way to help someone? Back in the day, like waaaaaay back, before med school and maybe even before "Friends," I commuted from Burr Ridge to Deerfield for a job. I'd sometimes drive through the manual toll booth and pay for the driver behind me. I'm sure the 30 cents didn't make or break the recipient's day, and might not have even made him smile. But I liked doing it, and it made me feel good for the rest of my commute.

This leads me to one of our neighbors. She has lived on our block for 25+ years. She and her husband raised their daughters here, and in a sense they raised our children along the way, too. This woman opened her home to family, neighbors and friends every holiday, to enjoy amazing food and wine, laughter and togetherness. Her home would be thrumming with people, tables laden with decorations and delicacies. And she never seemed frazzled, orchestrating these holidays; rather, she glowed.

Why I bring this up now, in this column, is because of Halloween. Our neighbors' children have grown and moved out; she and her husband have welcomed her elderly father-in-law to live with them, a situation that lends itself to exhaustion. Indeed, the busting-at-the-seams parties have trickled away. She has every reason to focus inward, on her family, her own home and health.

But with every Oct. 31, this woman decorates her home and yard with abandon. Spiderwebs, pumpkin lights, friendly ghosts and tombstones are neatly placed and welcoming. Her decorations make us happy as we walk past them, because they are emblematic of the kind efforts we associate with her. She decorates for others, who likely don't reach out to thank her. Rather, she throws her kindness to the universe (OK, there's my grandiosity again), or to the cul-de-sac, never expecting acknowledgment, because she knows. She knows that subtle consistent kindness sustains us until something direct comes along. Like someone paying your toll, or buying your lunch when you've forgotten your wallet, or just complimenting your smile.

So, sorry Phoebe and Joey. You can have your philosophical altruism. I like the steady kindness Lynn Di projects, and here, in this column, I hope she feels showered with warm fuzzies.

- Kelly Abate Kallas of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers can email her at [email protected].