Meet the Woman Who Drove to All 50 States Looking for Stories About Kindness. The 5 Lessons She Learned Changed the Way She Sees the World—and May Just Shift How You See It, Too
On December 14, 2012, a man walked into a Starbucks in New York City. He bought a few gift cards as holiday gifts and then one more for $100. He instructed the barista to run it out on the line behind him.
That man changed my life.
My co-worker Brian was in that line and received a free coffee thanks to the gift card-buying stranger. When he got to the office that day, he stopped at my desk to tell me all about it.
Seventy-five miles away, in Newtown, Connecticut, a man walked into a school and shot and killed 20 children and six adults around the same time Brian was getting a free coffee. When he came by my desk, I was glued to my computer screen reading all about the Sandy Hook shooting.
After Brian left, I called my mother. She was battling cancer for the second time, and I called her every day to check in. That morning, I told her the coffee story—but couldn’t stop talking about the shooting. “How is there so much bad out there, Mom?” I kept asking. “How could someone do something so horrible?”
My mother was quiet as I continued to bombard her with impossible questions, and then she politely interrupted me.
“Mary, you can’t forget about the man at Starbucks,” she urged me. “There are always going to be tragedies and horrible things that will happen in the world and in our lives, but there will always be more good out there, if you look for it.”
What I didn’t know at the time was that I would only have ten weeks left with my mother. I didn’t know that I’d soon find myself sitting with the rest of my family in the waiting room at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, before we all said our final goodbye.
The time I spent in that waiting room made me think about others. Who else was sitting in waiting rooms needing a way to find a little hope in the midst of so much darkness? Who else was feeling absolutely hopeless as they watched the person they love most in the world slip away from them?
Trying to answer these questions ultimately put me on a mission to honor my mom by going out and finding more good in every state in our country. I would drive Mom’s old Subaru Outback to keep her close with me, and I would hit every state in the U.S. I would stay with friends, friends of friends, and total strangers to support myself financially and emotionally. And when my journey was complete, I would compile the stories I found along my way into a book I’d put into hospital waiting rooms—to put a little hope back in those rooms for the next person who had to sit there.
I spent three years and 31 days on the road, stayed in 154 homes, and learned more lessons than I’ll be able to digest in this lifetime. Driving alone for hours helped me process some of what I was experiencing, and I find myself still trying to process all of those stories even now. But the biggest things I’ve learned sit clearly in my mind for a reason.
Lesson No. 1: There is a shortage of ears in America.
People desperately want to be heard. They want to be listened to and understood. Unfortunately, technology has slowly morphed us into distracted zombies with an attention span shorter than most goldfish, so we don’t often hear others. I once sat with a woman in California for two hours before realizing she did not have a story of more good for me, she simply wanted to talk. She was desperate for a friend, for someone to lend an ear. So, I stayed for another latte and a cinnamon scone. “Thank you for listening to me,” she said when we parted ways. Her last words from our meeting sat with me the next hundred miles down the road.
Lesson No. 2: Kindness is time.
Making a phone call to an old friend. Showing up at a loved one’s door. Making a dinner for the neighbor two doors down, checking in on the widow across the street, putting together a care package for the family in town with a new baby. I heard hundreds of stories on my journey, sometimes huge (like someone donating a kidney to a total stranger) and sometimes small (like a person buying the next customer in line their coffee.) All of these stories boiled down to one truth: Someone had spent the time to think about someone else. I recently asked someone about her biggest takeaway on life. “To exercise kindness,” she responded, as if there is a little kindness muscle that leads to our heart and when we exercise it, it grows stronger. When we do good deeds, it makes us happy, it strengthens the muscle, it reminds us why we are here and that we can still be in this together if we work at it.
Lesson No. 3: Life is a trust fall—and asking for help is OK.
On my journey, I spent years living in a limbo-like position, hoping for the best each time I walked through another stranger’s door. It felt like I was in a constant trust fall with everyone who opened their homes to me. Friends and family constantly worried about me. I was a woman traveling alone—what if something happened? What if the people letting me in were dangerous? I am not naïve to the fact that I was exceptionally fortunate to have safely driven back into my hometown after three years of crashing on strangers’ couches and in spare bedrooms. But I also know that if I didn’t trust the people who offered me shelter and if I didn’t ask for their help when I needed it, the journey would have never succeeded. I wouldn’t have heard the majority of the stories I found and I would’ve run out of money by the fifth state I drove into. I needed these strangers. I needed to trust that things would be OK. I needed to learn how to ask for help. And most days when I would be packing up my bags to go, the people would tell me how, through my own story, I had helped them.
“It gives me hope,” was the first thing someone told me after explaining that I stayed with strangers for the journey. “I like knowing that there are so many good people out there, and that you got home safely.”
Lesson No. 4: The only antidote to hurting is helping.
There is a sequence of events that happen during grief when we lose the people we love most in this world. A numbness takes over our body and we sit in our new life, the one in which our loved one isn’t. We watch the world keep moving while we sit paralyzed. Eventually we learn to move forward, to put one foot in front of the other again. But what I’ve learned is that when the ones left behind pick up the pieces of their shattered heart and find a way to honor the person they lost, something very beautiful happens.
I met a woman in Rockford, Illinois, who had lost her son to cancer. Within weeks of burying her child, she was out searching for another young man her son had met during his cancer treatment. She was aware he had been too old to be granted a Make-A-Wish, so she fundraised in her own community and made his wish come true herself. She told me, despite her debilitating grief, that “it helped me so much during that time to help someone else.” She has since started a non-profit in her son’s honor and has granted over 200 wishes to 18 to 24-year-old young people fighting cancer.
Lesson No. 5: My mom was right.
I’m not going to pretend that I had any idea what I was doing on my journey. There were moments that made me wonder if I’d make it to the finish line, and days I thought I’d failed because I couldn’t find a story. But in the end, I finally believed what I was preaching. I finally believed my mom.
When my mom died, my life crumbled in front of me. And I had a choice. I could let the grief consume me, or I could try and listen to her words. There is no right way to handle grief, and Lord knows I did let it devour me for months. But finally, when I was ready, I packed up her old blue Subaru and I went out to find the “more good” she promised me was out there. Only it wasn’t until the end of my journey that I realized the most important part of her words were the last five: If you look for it.
You cannot be a passive bystander waiting for ‘good’ to reveal itself. Because good things are rarely passive, they’re about being proactive. It’s taking initiative when you know someone struggling; it’s being hands-on when you see someone who needs a hand. When it comes to good, size has nothing to do with it. It’s about seeing an opportunity and actually doing something. Anything.
So, let me save you some time and quite a bit of mileage if you’re someone who is yearning to see more good in this world. You must seek it wherever you go and search for it in everyone you meet. There will be days in your life where you will feel there is no hope, those are the days you must look even harder.
The choice is, and always has been, yours.