Small Acts of Kindness
By Andrew Feight, Ph.D.
Hindsight is, as they say, twenty-twenty. Looking back we can see the impact of smaller events on the larger course of history. We see this in our own lives as we grow older and wiser, but we also see this in the history of our communities and institutions. Today, we can survey the past and see how a a certain turn of events, such as a small act of kindness, can take on, over time, a significance few if any could have imagined at an earlier time. Such is the case with the early history of the Foundation for Hospital Art.
Aesop, in his memorable fable about the lion and the mouse, concluded that “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” You see, what had happened was… a little mouse had found herself caught in the paws of a lion. The mighty feline, in what might be described as a random act of kindness, decided not to eat the little rodent as a dainty mid-afternoon snack. Instead, he released the mouse, who promptly scurried back to the safety of her home.
Later, when the lion had been caught in the ropes of a hunter’s trap, his roar of anger and distress reached the ears of our mouse, who promptly remembered the kind favor she had received from the lion. Without hesitation, she hurried to the scene and before the hunter could claim his catch, she chewed through the netting, freeing the lion and returning the lion’s earlier favor with her own small act of kindness.
As told by Aesop, the size of the lion’s act of kindness appears to be commensurate with the physical size of the mouse. It was, at the time, but a small act of kindness. For one who is accustomed to devouring much larger animals, the decision to spare the life of a rodent surely seemed inconsequential for the lion. For the mouse, however, this was a show of compassion and kindness that would never be forgotten. In Aesop’s telling, the lion’s act of kindness would come back to him in an unexpectedly big way. By saving the life of the mouse, the lion had ultimately saved his own life. Small acts of kindness, Aesop assures us, reverberate through our lives, through our communities, and come back to us in ways we cannot possibly predict. Who knows, your small act of compassion or charity today may, one day, end up saving your life.
If you speak with John Feight, my father and the founder of the Foundation for Hospital Art, and ask him about the earliest small acts of kindness that had the greatest impact on the success of the foundation, he will give you a list of gifts received that range from a cancer patient’s smile at Northside Hospital in Atlanta to the one dollar donation made by another hospital patient in Los Angeles, and, then he’ll mention the original $10,000 grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation. Yes, in my father’s book, acts of kindness have a relative quality. A smile, a one dollar bill, and a $10,000 check can all be seen as both relatively small things in the scheme of things. Yet, in time, and in retrospect, these are the gifts that made the largest impact.
In 1984, as the Foundation for Hospital Art began its mission, the Woodruff Foundation provided, what farmers (and venture capitalists) call, “seed money.” The grant was to help the Foundation for Hospital Art get off the ground, it was to help them launch the mission. For the Woodruff Foundation, whose assets today are worth around $2.7 billion and which annually gives away over $100 million in grants, the $10,000 grant to the Foundation for Hospital Art can certainly appear small, for it was a small grant.
Now, twenty-eight years later, with the Foundation’s art work hanging in nearly every nation on earth and with over 40,000 thousand murals completed in hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers, one can easily conclude that the Woodruff Foundation’s small act of kindness has proven a great investment of a tiny sliver of the former Coca Cola executive’s massive fortune.
If Robert W. Woodruff were alive today, I believe, he would take much satisfaction and derive some sense of meaning in his life if he were to learn how his philanthropy helped forward the work the Foundation for Hospital Art. But, the way my father tells it, the smile of a patient, whose suffering had been momentarily forgotten through art, actually made as much of a difference in the early success of the foundation as did the Woodruff grant. The smile gave meaning to my father’s work and confirmed what he himself was discovering: painting art in hospitals, by brightening the walls and engaging the creativity of patients, can help alleviate the pain and suffering of our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, our neighbors and friends. And when the Foundation received its first un-solicited donation from an un-known donor in California, my father found as much hope in this unexpected, small act of kindness, as he did in the Woodruff grant.
Hope, it turns out, is no small gift. Evidence of growing support for the Foundation’s mission, whether in the form of one dollar or ten thousand dollars, provided hope. Hope fuels our dreams, dreams for a better society, dreams of an end of suffering. The early history of the Foundation for Hospital Art illustrates the truth of Aesop’s fable: “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” We see that small acts of kindness can take many forms, and it makes no difference whether we are on the giving or receiving end, such acts always inspire hope and bring meaning to our lives.