Can you imagine hitchhiking from the West Coast to the East Coast without a cent in your pocket? Yeah, me neither. In the politest of terms I would call it extremely risky. But in the mid-1990s a journalist by the name of Mike McIntyre did just that and lived to write a book about it. It is titled “The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless Across America” and yesterday it was available as a free Kindle download on Amazon.com. Most of my Kindle books were obtained as free downloads and a lot of them turn out to be worth the price. This one I might have paid good money to read.
Mike, a well traveled, yet surprisingly fearful journalist reaches the end of his rope just after his 37th birthday. A little young for a mid-life crisis especially as in his own assessment he really hasn’t starting living his life; he’s been too afraid. In a move guaranteed to force him to face his fears and kick start his life he decides to hitchhike from San Francisco, California to Cape Fear, North Carolina. I’m not sure exactly why he opts to do it with no money in his pocket, and what’s more, to do it without accepting money along the way. He is going to rely on the kindness of strangers for transportation, food and lodging along what is to be a six week journey.
It’s the middle of a recession, and when he leaves on September 6th, two men from the Midwest are on a cross-country killing spree, but even so I can’t help but think that you could not do today, what he did now nearly 20 years ago. I think it’s more dangerous out there now. Of course the people in Mike’s family thought it was plenty dangerous back then – “You’re going to get raped out there.” His grandmother warns him. So in some ways it might seem that the most amazing thing about his journey is that he doesn’t get molested, assaulted, robbed, or killed and in fact the only ills he suffers are hunger, discomfort and one or two unnerving situations – close calls with drivers who appear to contemplate harming him or at least seem unconcerned about harming themselves and taking him along as collateral damage.
But it is clear that Mike thinks the most amazing thing about his journey is the kindness of the vast majority of the people he meets. The drivers who pick him up, the people who buy him dinner or, even more startling, take him home for dinner, who let him campout in their yards or even offer him a bed for the night. The drunks who buy him a beer; the Illinois contractor who invites him out for a game of golf; the many women who have weathered abuse and privation but who still see the good in people and willingly give him a ride or a meal; the retired basketball coach who lets him camp free at the campground he manages and whose home is a shrine to his ball player son; the potheads, the poets, the proselytizers, and prostitutes over and over again offer him kindness without strings.
I wondered (purely hypothetically) could you undertake the same journey with similar results today? Or has the Great Recession hardened us? Have we become more self-centered? Have our financial losses made us more tight fisted and less willing to lend a hand? Or, as some researchers speculate, has the prevalence of scams and the anonymity of the Internet made us more cautious or callous?
I wanted to know – are we less kind now than we used to be? I went looking for the answers in studies on kindness and this is what I found: kindness is contagious and being kind makes you happier and more popular. So even if times are hard it seems likely that people would still want to be happy and popular, right?
Apparently the answer to that depends on your age or location. A study in 2010 showed that college students are less compassionate towards strangers and less empathic in general than were students 30 years ago possibly due to increasing social isolation. A study on kindness towards strangers worldwide found that poorer cultures, smaller communities and countries with a slower pace of life were all more likely to help a stranger in need.
One of the reasons I downloaded (and read in a single day) this book is that kindness has always been a quality I hold in high regard. Our family motto, as my kids can attest, is “If you see someone in need and you can help, then you do help.” I believe children learn by example and they’ve participated in putting this motto into action as we have rescued lost dogs and returned them to their owners, stopped for stranded motorists or offered battery jumps for stalled cars, given a lift to a woman who just missed her bus in the rain, and helped and befriended the homeless.
My children have seen kindness in action in many other ways as well, since we began our difficult journey through homelessness and poverty. Strangers, people who have never met them in person, have sent gifts of food, clothing and school supplies, paid for their sports physicals and glasses, cheered on their successes and worried about their illnesses. Strangers have shopped through the blog link to Amazon.com, bought items from my Etsy store, and stepped in time and again when I thought we couldn’t weather another dark before the dawn, sending the help that got us through another day.
My kids are very aware of the big part my blog readers have played in our journey and I want you to know that they appreciate you. I hope I am imbuing my kids with a variety of good character traits – resiliency, fortitude, flexibility and a sense of humor. I hope they take after me in those ways. If they are kind adults then they will be taking after you as well.