The Holiday Lights Project
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. — Martin Luther King, Jr.
On September 11, 2011, I was sad: haunted by memories of the events of ten years ago, grieving for my country’s lost innocence. I felt like I needed to do something to remember the friends, colleagues, and classmates who had died that day, to brighten a world that seemed to darken every time this date rolled around on the calendar. I needed to find a way to fight that darkness.
So I walked into a nearby IHOP and I asked for the manager. When she walked up, wondering what anyone could possibly be angry enough about to actually come back in to complain about, I said, “I’d like to buy everyone’s breakfast. Could I do that?”
She was shocked. “Everyone?” She gestured at the restaurant full of Sunday brunchers. “Everyone in here?”
“Yes,” I said. “Can you help me do that?”
“Um, sure!” Then began a chaotic process of printing bills, adding them up, and explaining to waitresses why their customers’ balances were disappearing from the system. Eventually, we gathered up everyone’s breakfast bills and I paid it, adding a healthy tip for the by now completely confused wait staff.
As I handed the signed credit card slip back to the manager, she asked, “Why?”
Holding back tears, I said, “Because someone needs to spread some joy today.”
Then I left.
It’s been a little over a week since what I’ve come to call “The Tuesday Surprise.” Our country is reeling once again, but this time the damage is self-inflicted. The 2016 election has polarized America more than any other election, the ugly culmination of over 20 years of progressively escalating bad behavior on the part of our elected leaders. People are confused, angry, and, in many cases, genuinely frightened about what the next four years hold for them and their loved ones. And these feelings aren’t limited to the “losing side” in this election. A majority of Donald Trump’s supporters cite “anger at the establishment” as one of their primary motivations in voting for him, and many moderate voters who chose him as the lesser of two evils now find themselves painted as bigots, racists, and misogynists because of the broader platform they received as a package deal with their chosen candidate.
Right now, we are a nation divided. Fear, anger, current events, the news, social media, all of these forces are pushing us away from our fellow citizens, driving us into ideological armed camps populated only by people who agree exactly with everything we’ve decided is true. When we look at each other, we see stereotypes instead of people, labels instead of personalities. We’ve forgotten how to be civil. In fact, civility and an openness to discourse are starting to be seen as a sign of weakness, as witnessed by the backlash against people seeking a middle ground between the factions in this post-election climate.
The darkness is spreading and we’re running around turning out all the lights.
I think it’s time we changed that, and I’m starting with the only thing over which I have any real control: myself (and, with my wife’s permission, my family). We’ve grieved, we’ve reassessed, and now we’re heading back into the fight, but probably not how you think.
We’re going to fight hate with love, darkness with light, random acts of violence with random acts of kindness. And I’m inviting you to join us.
For the next six weeks, now through the end of the year, my family and I are going on a Blessing Tour. We’re going to buy coffee for strangers, send gifts to distant acquaintances, and pay for people’s groceries. We’re going to raid the Community Giving Tree and buy ALL THE PRESENTS FOR ALL THE POOR FAMILIES! We’re going to open our eyes, look beyond our own worries, and see the need around us. Not just the obvious needs, like homeless people on the streets, but the hidden needs, like the mom quietly worrying about her gay daughter while she goes shopping, or the coworker at the office dreading the holidays because it’s his first year alone. We’re going to turn on all the lights and send the darkness fleeing wherever we go.
We can’t do this all by ourselves, so I’m inviting everyone in America to join in. Yes, even you. Will you look away from the news and Facebook and Twitter, step away from your outrage and fear over what “the other side” — whoever that may be — are doing and just try to make life better for the real people sitting right next to you? Will you turn on one light and make the world just a little bit brighter? And if that feels good, maybe another, then another, and maybe even another after that?
It’s easy to start:
Do something small for a stranger. Anonymously.
Why a stranger? Two reasons:
- It’s a complete surprise. If you ask for your check and the waitress says, “Someone already took care of it,” then you get a moment of pure joy and gratitude, two things that we all need right now.
- There’s no way for them to pay you back, so there’s no strings attached. It’s kindness for kindness’ sake.
Why anonymously? Because it’s not about you. It’s about letting someone else experience a moment of feeling loved and cared for, even in a small way. Bonus: no awkward conversations with strangers!
Things you can do:
- Buy dinner for someone who’s eating alone at the same restaurant. Just ask the waitress to quietly add their meal to your bill, then skedaddle.
- Pay for the car behind you at a drive-through, then take off before they can get your license plate.
- Pay for the groceries for that old lady at the store who always takes ten minutes to find exact change. This is harder to do anonymously, but it does have the added benefit of getting you though the checkout line more quickly.
Go wide. If you can, go big.
You don’t have to learn the life stories of everyone around you before you can help them. If you cast a wide net by doing a bunch of small things, then you increase your odds of giving someone that, “This is exactly what I needed!” moment that can change a life. If, like me, you don’t really enjoy talking to lots of people, this is the perfect approach. If, also like me, you might also get teary when trying to explain why you’re doing something like this, then this is also the best way to avoid making a scene at Starbucks.
I find that the best way to do this is to find some small luxury, like a cup of coffee, a treat, or a movie ticket, that offers a real jolt of pleasure when someone is surprised to learn that it’s free. This gives you more bang for your blessing buck. If you have the skill to knit scarves for everyone in your neighborhood, then you can do that, too. I just can’t knit.
There’s also something special about giving extravagantly. Anyone can drop a few cans into the food drive bin, but when someone shows up and fills that bin, then stacks more food beside it, that act helps more people and touches the hearts of the people working the food drive. Again, you’re getting more positive impact for the same amount of energy, and I’m all about efficiency.
Things you can do:
- Buy a gift card at your favorite coffee shop, then hand it to the person taking orders and ask them to use it to buy everyone else’s drinks until it runs out.
- Tell the bartender at your favorite brewpub that the next round is on you, but don’t let them tell anyone who’s paying.
- Rake your neighbors’ leaves this weekend before they can get to it, or shovel their driveway when it snows.
- Grab a bunch of small gift requests for poor families at your local community center, Salvation Army, or church and go shopping.
- Hit Costco and show up at your local food bank with a carload of food. Involve another family and make it two carloads at the same time.
Or, go deep.
Extroverts who are into probing conversations, this one’s for you. Instead of scattering your seeds all over the field, look for the needs right around you: the coworker who’s gone quiet, the neighbor who says she’s worried, the new guy who doesn’t know anyone. Find people who have nowhere to go for Thanksgiving and add them to your chaotic mess of a family dinner. Ask someone how they’re really doing and wait for the answer. Look beyond your worries and give someone the chance to share theirs. You may be exactly what they need to avoid a downward spiral between now and New Year’s.
Things you can do:
- Seek out “holiday orphans” and invite them to join in your celebrations.
- Look for people around you who are “faking it” and invite them for coffee or a meal so they can talk.
- Find the perfect gift for that friend who doesn’t seem to have anything going right in their lives right now.
- Volunteer at a counseling center or in some other role where you think you can help.
Just do something.
My point here is simple: it’s time for all of us to stop fretting and start acting. We’ll have plenty of time to fight more battles once we know which battles actually need fighting. In the meantime, people all around us are hurting, angry, and frightened, and they need someone to show that love still exists in the world. We need to remind ourselves that we still have the power to do good, to affect the world around us in ways that our elected officials can’t. We need to move, to take action, to do something that doesn’t just fuel our fight-or-flight instincts.
Whether you’re happy about the election or not, whether you’re funding your ACLU war chest or waiting for Trump to fix Washington, you’re still surrounded by people who need your help. When the time comes, we can and will hold our elected officials accountable to the will of the people they’re supposed to serve. In the meantime, we need to come together as good-hearted people and take care of each other. We need to see and show that good still exists in the United States of America.
Go out and show some kindness today, and then post a comment below or on your favorite social media platform using the hashtag #turnonthelight. Describe what you did or share a picture. If you think this is a good idea, share this post with your friends and dare them to outdo you with their good works. Let’s see if we can get something positive trending.
It’s time to turn on the light. Will you join me?