This past summer I was privileged with the opportunity to speak on behalf of ReesSpecht Life in front of over 400 incoming freshmen to the humanities college at the State University of New York at Stony Brook (SUNY Stony Brook). During the presentation I recounted the story of what happened to Rees and the acts of kindness that lead to the genesis of ReesSpecht Life. I discussed the tenants of what we are all about and after a hopefully uplifting, 40-50 minutes, I left them all with a challenge: To change the world with acts of kindness.
Unless you were present for my presentation you might be thinking to yourself that I left these poor students with an unachievable goal. After all, how could 400 17-18 year old’s be expected to change the world when they themselves are still relatively new to it and so few in number? I recall seeing this very doubt echoed in their incredulous expressions and more than a couple of guffaws from the students who sat before me. I used the following picture in the presentation:
This image is the simplification of the process of paying it forward: One person’s act of kindness has the potential to spread exponentially if each person in the chain does the same in turn. I believe that some of the cynicism directed at my hope that we can change the world is the realization that, although this image looks so simple, the reality is that it does not function in this way. One person’s act of kindness can surely spur others to kind acts of their own, but the chain is broken as soon as someone fails to act. It is inevitable that some individual’s apathy and/or the entropy of daily life will ensure that the chain does not propagate in perpetuity… eventually the chain will break and the spread of kindness is halted.
One could conclude that doing what we do is then pointless: The acts of kindness we hope to propagate are destined to stop and only the people in the chain before the weakest link benefit. Apathy creeps in when people come to the realization that the best of our intentions, our hopes of a changed world, are mitigated by the inaction of those who just don’t care enough to pass along the kindness. It is only natural that these people ask themselves why should I bother, since I can’t possibly expect this to ACTUALLY change the world?
The reason we try is simple: It is worth it. Change is never easy. My Mother used to tell me over and over again that “Nothing worthwhile is ever easy to attain”. The idea of promoting kindness is something that I often thought about before Rees died. I often found myself dismayed at the primary focus we have here on our own needs. Everyday our society is bombarded with messages about what we can do for ourselves. I challenge you to find an advertisement that does not focus on something for you. The message that this constant bombardment we get about doing things for ourselves, to make ourselves feel better through the aquisition of material things, is pervasive.
It’s not just the media and advertisement industry that promote this inflated sense of self importance and consumerism. Right after 9/11, then President Bush, in an attempt to calm the collective nerves of our damaged national psyche, proposed that Americans return to their status quo: “People [should be] going about their daily lives, working and shopping and playing, worshiping at churches and synagogues and mosques, going to movies and to baseball games.” I always felt like that was a lost opportunity: Where was the plea to become more engaged in our communities? Where was the request for civic pride and community awareness? Don’t get me wrong, I do not fault President Bush, what he said was merely reflective of us as a Nation. The President re-affirmed the idea that in America we need to do things for ourselves foremost. We are too focused on ourselves – and I admit that I was just as guilty as just about every other American of this.
After Rees died, I saw the other side of America. I saw the power of the collective good and how they were able to lift my family on their shoulders and carry us through our own, personal, superstorm. Neighbors that I had never met came to my home, introduced themselves for the first time, and made us dinner. Business owners like Bill Kelly of Kelly Brothers Landscaping donated their time and considerable resources to repair our physical world. Past friends renewed their acquantince with me through a simple phone calls expressing their condolences. The collective acts of kindness my family experienced kept us from teetering over into the abyss and helped lift us up to solid ground. It was restorative. It was comforting. It was beautiful. It was exceptional – and I wondered why? Why are we surprised when a stranger does something nice for us? Why is it when I pay for people and give them a ReesSpecht Life card that nine out of ten times they look at me with a befuddled expression and often ask me “What’s your angle?”. After going through this ordeal, I think I know the answer: Perspective.
The loss of a child is the ultimate perspective changer. I have written several times about this already ( Here and Here). My world view took a complete 180 after the loss of Rees. From the moment I found him the reality of a forever changed world hit me like a freight train. The loss of a child actively robs a parent of the future every single moment of their lives going forward. I will always face a diminished life, no matter what I do, because Rees will never be a part of my physical world ever again. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, I can do that can ever change that. The hole created by his absence can never, ever be filled. It seems so hopeless when I write, or think, that… and indeed that hopelessness filled me for quite some time after he died. But like all wounds the acute pain of losing a child does ebb and give way to what I can only describe as a numbness – a desensitization, to the pain. And like all wounds, the pain of losing a child heals better when attended to by others.
I would not be where I am today without the help of my family, friends and even complete strangers who carried Sam and I through the darkness and kept us at the precipice of the hole in our world that could have swallowed us. I saw, firsthand, the light that humanity can shine on the darkness of loss. Those people who touched our lives at that time provided the ultimate positive to counter-balance the negative in our world. I witnessed the power that kindness wields over despair and its ability to restore that which was so badly damaged. In fact, it was precisely what I witnessed in this time of despair that started ReesSpecht Life in the first place. It dawned on me that if the acts of Kindness and generosity can lift someone who is already down, imagine what those acts could do for people who have not fallen? What if instead of always trying to restore people to the status quo of existence, we raise the bar and lift everyone up to a higher place? If my world could be re-calibrated from such an awful place through kindness, it only stands to reason that applying this positive force to those not suffering will only serve to lift us ALL up higher. ReesSpecht Life is the culmination of my hypothesis that if we spread kindness to others, regardless of the situation, those people will pass it along because, like energy, kindness cannot be destroyed – only passed along. The more kindness we spread, the more we lift ALL OF US up.
Any good hypothesis must be tested, and that brings me back to those students at Stony Brook. Towards the end of my presentation to them, I tasked them with performing an act of kindness in Rees’ name. We gave each of them a ReesSpecht Life card and sent them along their way. My hope was, that at the very least, these students would leave the room with a slightly different perspective on the world and their ability to make it better. I was happy to share my own perspective, and hoped that through my own experience they would pass along a little bit of kindness. I found out later I was way off in my estimation. The students at Stony Brook didn’t pass on a “little bit” of kindness, they literally passed on VOLUMES full of kindness…
About a month ago Sam and I were contacted by Erika Benhardt, the college advisor for the Undergradaute College of Human Development at Stony Brook, and asked to come to a dinner with some of the other advisors and a select group of students who were at the presentations. Sam and I were delighted to get another chance to meet with them and we figured we would hear about some of the acts of kindness that these students had performed. I remember thinking about how awesome it was that I was able to motivate several of them to perform acts of kindness and could not wait for them to share. When we arrived, I saw a group of about 20 or so students and advisors and I was ecstatic. They were all so enthusiastic about being there and Sam and I were so thrilled to share that time with them. Not long after we arrived they presented us with two wrapped gifts. For the life of me I could not fathom what it was, and when Sam and I opened the gifts we could not believe our eyes: Packaged neatly inside two extra large binders were notes, drawings, and letters from almost ALL of the students that were at my presentations. As I thumbed through them I was overcome with emotion at the notion that I literally had volumes full of stories about acts of kindness performed in Rees’ name. Page after page of stories recounting acts, both big and small, whose genesis was the spirit of my little boy (click to read)
If there was ever any doubt that what we are doing could change the world, I now have the empirical proof that we are. Big things have small beginnings. A year ago this time ReesSpecht Life was nothing more than a few hundred followers on a facebook page put together by a grieving father. Today, we have over 12,000 followers and 113,000 unique visitors to our website. We have distributed more than 25,000 ReesSpecht Life cards – and hopefully at least that many “acts” of kindness. We have given out two Scholarships at Smithtown High School and are adding to more schools this year. If anyone ever asks me if I believe that what we are doing is actually going to change the world, I can now reply with an affirmative: “We are changing the world, one Rees’ piece at a time, and I have binders full of Kindness to prove it”.