Sunday, January 19, 2020

Be kind when no one is looking

As my senior project at Bethany College, I took the advice of John Taylor, an English professor who fancied himself a curmudgeon but was among the kindest and most supportive professors on campus to many of us.

He suggested I look at the maxims of the 17th century French writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld, to see if I could draw any parallels from his words to modern behavior.

Shortly after the new year, I came across one of La Rochefoucauld's maxims that has stuck with me many years after college: "When our hatred is too bitter it places us below those whom we hate." The sentiment seems to be timeless and particularly salient now. It's one that has been echoed by others in essays, comic strips, political stump speeches, commencement addresses and elsewhere.

If we stoop to hating that with which we disagree, we risk becoming far worse than the thing we hated.

One antidote to stooping to hatred is also timeless, although it too has often failed to make its way from words to actions, and that's the charge to be kind.

In his biography of the writer Henry James, Leon Edel writes about James' nephew Billy's recollection of his uncle saying, "Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind."

The quote is often attributed to Mister Rogers. Ellen DeGeneres regularly ends her daily television show with the admonition: "Be kind to one another." When I was invited to address the student body of Bethany College several years ago, the important message of being relentlessly kind was central to the talk I gave. I still believe so.

When small acts of kindness particularly to strangers are committed, they are often met with surprise, suggesting that making an effort to be kind is not yet the norm.

On two successive days this month, B.G. was surprised by kindness in Colorado where she lives. After she responded "not smooth" to the barista who asked her how her day was going, he responded with: "Well, then your drink is on me." A day later as B.G. was gathering her belongings from her car after she parked, a woman knocked on her window to let her know she was putting money in the parking meter for her. Two small acts that shifted B.G.'s mood about her day.

As B.G. put it, the acts "completely reframed my mindset."

"Kindness is powerful," B.G. observed.

Indeed, it can be. And I'm not talking about the type of kindness that results in finding your name splashed across local or national media because you paid off someone's tuition bill or you left a sizeable tip to a hardworking waiter. I'm not talking about doing good deeds because some research has found that doing so can result in reducing physical pain from which you might be suffering.

Those are indeed acts of kindness, but even more important are those which we commit with no expectation of anything in return.

Kindness can indeed prove powerful. The right thing is to be kind even when no one is looking. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 


Sunday, January 12, 2020

How to help teachers buy classroom supplies

For the past several years, Eight Cousins, the independent bookstore in Falmouth, Massachusetts, has erected an artificial Christmas tree near its front register and decorated it with paper ornaments featuring the ages and sometimes first names of 300 to 500 children and teenagers.

Local schools and organizations provide the store with the names, ages and often the type of books each child likes to read. Customers can take an ornament off the tree and search for a book for that child or enlist the help of one of the store's workers.

There are also some ornaments with cash amounts on them that go into a general fund that's used to purchase books for any children whose names weren't selected. Any cash donations remaining are applied to the purchase of the following year's books. Eight Cousins gives buyers a 15% discount on the books they purchase from the giving tree.

The effort increases sales a bit for an independent bookstore operating in a small village on Cape Cod where foot traffic dips dramatically in the winter months. It also provides an opportunity for customers to give back to the community, whether they live there or not. But mostly, the effort gets books into the hands of children who express a desire to own a book of their own, but who might not be able to afford the purchase of a new book.

Are strangers ethically responsible for purchasing books for people they don't know? No. That they want to do so anyway if they're able suggests a commitment to their community that should be applauded.

But it's not just at holiday time when resources like books are in need.

That local schools are involved in Eight Cousins annual giving tree project is not surprising. Most teachers go out of their way to provide students with materials and supplies that might help them learn. It's also well-publicized that many teachers spend their own money to supplement the supplies for their classrooms. According to the Economic Policy Institute, kindergarten through 12-grade public school teachers spend an average of $459 a year of their own money to purchase school supplies. (The range goes from North Dakota teachers averaging $327 to California averaging $664 out of pocket.)

Just as Eight Cousins has its giving tree of names, many teachers have taken to the internet to post wish lists for supplies and materials they otherwise would be paying for with their own money. was founded in 2000 by teacher Charles Best. On the site, teachers can post requests for funding for projects. Anyone can search the listings for projects and help fund them.

Another site,, was founded by Tim Sullivan in 2012. It features supply lists and wish lists from teachers. Anyone can look up a school's list and link directly to any number of online merchants to fulfill their lists.

Again, there is no ethical imperative that anyone should contribute to help offset the cost of school supplies often paid for by public school teachers. But if anyone is looking for another way to help teachers do their job and students benefit from their efforts, then chipping in is the right thing to do. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to