Have you ever talked yourself into an unnecessarily antagonistic attitude?

I am now seventy-three years old and I walk with a cane, due to rather nasty and pervasive arthritis. As many of the more senior readers of TIRF Today probably know, the condition itself is really uncomfortable. It involves regular, stubborn aches and sudden, unexpected sharp pains, often triggered by the slightest movement. Word processing by typing is becoming quite a chore for me and standing up longer than three or four minutes is very painful.

But even more annoying than the discomfort is the way that walking with a cane changes your life. The main problem, from my point of view, means that I am – of necessity – one-handed as I go about my daily routines. Carrying a bowl of hot soup becomes a dangerous balancing act. Clearing the table after a meal takes twice as long as it should. Bringing in packages left on my front porch is a process of clumsily tipping the boxes end over end as I roll them into the house, hoping there is nothing fragile inside. The most frequent and basic inconvenience is that trying to open doors while carrying something is nearly impossible.

Earlier this month I had to do some serious business at my bank about a loan. I had called ahead a few days before going to the bank to see if I needed an appointment for this particular transaction. The person I spoke to assured me that no appointment was needed – I could just show up any time during bank hours.

On Friday, January 14th, I had purposefully kept my schedule free, so I didn’t have to teach or meet with students via Zoom. I got cleaned up and prepared to drive into town. But I fell victim to the kind of negative fantasy conversation that I sometimes engage in when I am worried about an upcoming meeting. I began to expect that I’d arrive at the bank and find that the person I needed to talk to would be out for the day. I imagined that I would have wasted time driving to town, waiting in line, and preparing paperwork only to learn that the transaction could not be done that day. I succumbed to the pessimistic “discourse in my head” – anticipating how I would respond to the person who would give me the bad news about my wasted trip and unfinished business.

I drove to town with my hands clenched on the steering wheel, getting more and more annoyed at how I would feel if I could not complete the transaction that day.

When I arrived at the bank, I was pleased to find an available handicapped parking space. I put on my COVID-deterring mask, gathered my paperwork, grabbed my cane, and clambered out of the car. As I emerged and locked the vehicle, struggling with my cane, my purse, my sunglasses, and the paperwork, I saw a man who had parked several spaces to the left of me rushing to the bank door.

“What a jerk!” I thought. “He wants to get through the door before me, so I don’t slow him down or get in line before him.” My grumpy self had completely taken over by then.

But to my surprise, the man waited for me at the entry to the bank. He smiled at me and opened one side of the first set of heavy double doors. I thanked him and commented that apparently chivalry was not dead. He laughed, waited for me to pass, and then quickly moved past me. Not one to easily relinquish resentment, I again assumed that he was rushing to get in line ahead of me, but no. He stepped past me and opened the second set of double doors, standing back to let me pass again. Now I was both grateful and chagrined.

As we entered the bank, we saw a long line of people waiting for service. Perhaps the line seemed particularly long because everyone was standing six feet apart, due to COVID restrictions. I urged the man to go ahead of me, since he would have been before me in line had he not paused to help me. He declined once more, said he wasn’t in a hurry, and gestured for me to go ahead. As I have a great deal of difficulty standing now, I gratefully accepted his kind gesture and got in line. At that point I expected I would have to wait for 10 or 15 minutes for my turn at the bank teller’s window.

But I was surprised once more. A young man, apparently an employee, came along the line asking people about their purpose for being in the bank. When he got to me, I explained my business. He said he could find someone to help me and took me aside to a chair at a desk. I was relieved to be able to sit down.

He returned shortly and said the person I needed to talk to was busy, but he’d get the process started. I thought, “Oh, great! This is going to take even longer than I expected!” But he called up my computer records right away and began filling out forms. He apologized for being a bit slow and explained that he was a new employee. Once again, I felt grateful and chagrined – even a bit guilty for thinking such negative thoughts – so I settled down to wait for the loan specialist.

In just a few minutes, she arrived, greeted me, and coached the young employee about how to complete the process. To my great surprise, they soon finished the transaction. What I thought would require 30 to 45 minutes took less than ten. The loan officer asked me if there was anything else I needed to do at the bank and I said yes, I needed to get some cash. She glanced at the line and said, “Oh, I’m sorry! For that you’ll need to get in line and see a teller.” So I hobbled to the back of the line.

After a few seconds, the man in front of me turned around. He saw that I was in some discomfort and encouraged me to go ahead of him. I thanked him but declined, acknowledging that he had been waiting for some time. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’m not in a hurry and the line is moving steadily. Please go ahead.” I thanked him and moved up one place.

At that point, I was the fourth person in line and there was a very old woman ahead of me. Her hair was  totally white. I thought she must have been in her late 80’s. The woman glanced at me and said, “Why don’t you go ahead of me? You look like you are in pain.” I was actually quite embarrassed by her kindness and declined again, but she said, “I was walking with a cane a few months ago, before I had my hip replacement. I know how you feel. Please come up here and go ahead of me.” I thanked her and moved up a space.

At that point, the line began to move rather quickly and I suddenly found myself at a teller’s window much sooner than I expected to be. Not only that – the teller was helpful, pleasant, and efficient. I showed her my ID card, got the cash I needed, and awkwardly put it into my handbag. I returned my ID to the side pocket of my purse, put on my sunglasses, grabbed my cane, and walked slowly toward the exit doors.

Just at that moment, a young woman came rushing down the stairs from the executive offices on the second floor. She hurried into the public area of the bank just a few steps from me, and I thought to myself, “Somebody’s in a hurry! I’m glad I wasn’t closer to the door – she would have bowled me over!” That thought was accompanied by a slightly superior attitude on my part about how careless the woman seemed to be about other people’s needs.

But once again, I was surprised. She halted and turned suddenly, smiled at me, and quickly moved to open the first set of double doors for me. Not only that: She then stepped past me and opened the outer door as well. She smiled and wished me a good day, not knowing how ashamed I was of my negative attitude about her imagined thoughtlessness.

As I got settled in the car, I decided I needed to do a thorough attitude adjustment. I thought for a moment about how seven people had helped me in so many ways: the first man, who opened two sets of doors and urged me to take his place in line; the young bank employee, who found me a seat and initiated the paperwork; the loan specialist, who promptly dealt with my issue while teaching the new person how to manage the transaction; the second man, who gave me his place in line; the elderly woman, who empathized with my discomfort and gave me her place in line; the bank clerk, who handled my request quickly and kindly; and, finally, the young woman who stopped in her tracks, temporarily abandoned her urgent errand, and opened the two sets of doors for me as I left the bank.

How silly I’d been to anticipate a negative experience and privately work myself into a potential hissy fit, preparing in advance for things to go wrong! In fact, as the bank visit actually played out, I had been given many reasons – seven to be exact – to be positive.

As I drove away from the bank, I turned on the car radio and caught just the tail end of an announcement about “Random Acts of Kindness Day.” So that was it! All of these people had been alerted to the idea of helping others because it was Random Acts of Kindness Day. Well, no matter what their motivation had been, I was grateful for all the little but significant and surprising things they had done to help me.

There is a bit more to this story, which includes yet another surprise. When I got home, I turned on my laptop and looked up “Random Acts of Kindness Day.” Apparently, the tradition started in New Zealand, where it is celebrated on September 1st. There is even a foundation that supports the idea. Among its initiatives are free lesson plans about kindness for teachers of grades K-5, 6-8, and high schools.

But wait a minute! As I looked for more information on the Internet, I found that January 14th was not Random Acts of Kindness Day. The actual celebration of the concept in many countries is on February 17th. So those seven people who helped me had not been prompted by media reminders to be kind on that particular day. They had just been helpful people who had each done a simple thing for a stranger. But wait again! Was it such a simple thing? Yes, opening a door is a brief and simple act, but causing an attitude adjustment for another person can be a complex and long-lasting outcome.

As I thought about my experiences that day, I found this definition on Wikipedia: “A random act of kindness is a non-premeditated, inconsistent action designed to offer kindness towards the outside world.” Elsewhere it is described as “a random and unexpected good deed which will surprise those on the receiving end of the act.” (I haven’t found the proper attribution for this last sentence.)

What does any of this story have to do with TIRF? Not much, perhaps, except that I would like to encourage you, on February 17th or any other day that is convenient for you, to make a donation to the Foundation. Your gift could help to support total strangers – young scholars from many countries trying to complete their doctoral studies, or researchers at various levels seeking resources to help inform their studies. Making a donation would not be random or unpremeditated – but it would indeed be a great kindness. And who knows how it might change a person’s life?

I want to close this Chair’s Report with a message a Doctoral Dissertation Grantee (DDG) sent some time ago, upon being notified of receiving the grant from TIRF:

When I was preparing my application for the TIRF DDG competition, I had growing doubts about my career as a researcher of English language education. I saw the need for classroom-based research on English-medium instruction in Korean universities and decided to conduct the research using my own private funds. Due to both financial difficulty resulting from my doctoral study abroad and a lack of recognition of the value of the work, when submitting my application for the DDG competition, I said to myself, “If I don’t get this one, maybe I should give up and find a career other than as a researcher in ELT.” A few months later, as I was looking at the email message that said TIRF had decided to award me a DDG, I was literally in tears. I still vividly remember the moment when I said to my wife, “Oh, this award has saved my life!”

I am not claiming that your gift to TIRF would literally save someone’s life. But just think of the positive attitude adjustment your donation could help trigger! As noted in our newsletter and on our website, the 2022 Doctoral Dissertation Grants competition is now open. There are many worthy young scholars conducting research, for whom your gift could surely open many doors.

Best wishes,