Recently my family and I had the great privilege of traveling to the beautiful Central America country of Costa Rica, nestled between Nicaragua and Panama.  We stayed mostly on the Nicoya Peninsula which juts out into the Pacific Ocean, and found both the people and the landscapes to be amazing.

Soccer is known as a second religion in this small but proud country.  The population of Costa Rica is half that of the state of Michigan, yet somehow they manage to compete at the highest level in the World Cup.  In 2014 the Costa Rica team made it all the way to the quarter finals in the Cup and lost to the Netherlands in a penalty shoot-out.  Having this background intel made it easy for me to know what to bring on our trip as gifts for young people that we encountered; soccer balls.  On a side note, I played soccer in high school and college, and both of my sons have played as well.  Ask me sometime to explain to you why this “beautiful game” is my favorite.  I can’t guarantee that I will convince you, but I can assure you that I will convey the passion I have for it.

It is unlikely for a young soccer player in Costa Rica to ever own a soccer ball, not to mention a brand new one.  So for our trip I ordered a dozen, high quality balls which featured the red, white, and blue of the Costa Rican national flag and team jersey.  My family and I packed them in our suitcases (uninflated) and brought a pump and needle with which to inflate them.

We always traveled with several balls and kept an eye out for just the right person and the right moment to give them away.  On a trip into the city for provisions of water and sunscreen, we noticed a boy of about six years old walking on the side of the road with his mother.  We pulled over, and in my very poor Spanish asked permission to give this woman’s son a soccer ball.  I managed to ask, “Senora, con su permiso, un regalo para su hijo?”  In my mind this translates to, “Mrs., with your permission, a gift for your son.”

Regardless, the message was received as intended based on a huge, ear-to-ear smile from this little boy.  He looked to his mother for permission, and with a smile as broad as his, she nodded, and the boy said, “Gracias” as he stretched out his hands.  Before I got too sentimental (as I am prone to be emotional), we drove off and continued to the “supereconomico.”  One down, eleven more to go.

On a different day, we found ourselves in the Central Park of the city of Liberia.  My son, Christopher, could resist no longer the temptation to play with and juggle the ball.  Within an instant an older gent sitting on a park bench, escaping the oppressive heat, jumped up and whistled for the ball.  My son dutifully passed him the ball, and thus ensued an impromptu game where strangers became amigos.  This gentleman’s eyes twinkled at what this brief game meant to him.  I believe Christopher was pleased to find a playmate and finally kick one of the precious balls we brought.  I call them precious because I wanted them to remain pristine and brand new before giving them away with no blemishes on them.

We stopped in to the church of the Immaculate Conception on the eastern edge of the park for a quick prayer before heading back home.  When we stepped back out into the bright light of the midday, there was a boy sitting out front on the steps of the church.  I noticed him earlier, watching us with fascination as we kicked the ball around.  My son handed him the ball, and I can only imagine the conversation between these two young men as Christopher’s Spanish is “Mas Bueno” than mine.  I did capture the transaction on my camera and will treasure that image as a favorite memory of our visit.  There are 10 more stories to go along with these two, that I am happy to share the next time we are together; just remind me.

I know that I am not feeding the world or curing cancer, but I firmly believe that these small gestures and others like them go a long way to counteracting the abundance of negativity in the world.  Being kind to one another, smiling, holding the door open for a stranger, all move the needle (however modestly) of the disposition of our fellow man.

There is a psychological property called reciprocity that causes a person who receives some kind gesture to return the favor to another, even if it is not to the person who was kind to them.  Think about it; if someone does something nice for you don’t you have some kind of internal desire to go and do likewise?  I hope so.

In fact it wasn’t until this exact moment as I write these words that I recall an episode of my adolescence.  I will try to keep it brief:  As a teenager I worked at Chamberlain’s Family Restaurant here in Traverse City.  On a Friday or Saturday night after working late, we busboys would often go to the Flap Jack Shack on Munson to enjoy the fruits of our tip money by plowing it back into the economy as we would eat pancakes and drink coffee by the gallons.  We were usually well behaved, and on one occasion, unbeknownst to us (I love that I could use that word), a stranger picked up our bill.  We asked the waitress for the bill, and she told us that a gentleman that was sitting adjacent to us paid our bill.  We never had an opportunity to thank him.  This may have created the chain reaction of kindness that I was heretofore (now I am just showing off) unaware of.

Joan and I have done the same thing as that stranger did for me almost 40 years ago for a young family struggling to keep it together or for a service member when we see one at a restaurant.

I share all of this with you at the risk of being perceived as boasting at our generosity, and my hope is that is not how you take it.  But rather, if I am able to encourage one additional act of kindness, no matter how small, I will have been successful.  If that is the case, then I can brag.  Just kidding, but I will have served my purpose.  Go, be kind.