5 Inspiring Good Deeds from the Pages of History

Random acts of kindness go way back.

Mar 3, 2015
Special Collections: LEND A HAND
stack of old photos

Stories of kindness throughout the ages (Shutterstock)

The phrases ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ and ‘Pay it Forward’ are used often in the modern age - especially in the circles of people and organizations who want to make the world a better place. And this month on March 15, people from all corners of the earth will come together for a global celebration of doing good - Good Deeds Day.
But kindness isn’t a new fad - it goes way back. These five inspiring stories take us through religious traditions, sporting events and hard times for humanity - revealing the love, kindness and compassion that underlies the human experience.

1. AN ACT OF SPORTSMANSHIP

WHO: Ivan Fernandez Anaya
WHEN: 2012
WHAT: In December 2012, Kenyan runner Abel Mutai was in first place during a cross-country race in Burlada, Spain. When he was some 10 meters away from the end of the race, he mistakenly thought he had crossed the finish line and won the race - so he slowed down - giving Spanish runner Ivan Fernandez Anaya the chance to overtake him and claim victory. Instead, Fernandez caught up to his rival and guided him to the finish line - choosing honesty and sportsmanship over victory. Watch the good deed play out in this video from the event.

Ivan Fernandez Anaya guides Abel Mutai to the finish line

Ivan Fernandez Anaya guides Abel Mutai to the finish line (Screenshot

2. AN ACT OF FORGIVENESS

WHO: Pope John Paul II
WHEN: 1981
WHAT: On May 13, 1981 Pope John Paul II survived an attempt on his life in St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City. Just four days later, John Paul publicly forgave his would-be assassin, saying that he’d actually already forgiven the Turkish man - Mehmet Ali Agca - when he was in the ambulance on the way to the hospital in a serious condition. This historical good deed shows that forgiveness is always possible.

Pope John Paul II greets pilgrims in 2004

Pope John Paul II greets pilgrims, 2004 (giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com)

3. AN ACT OF HUMANITY

WHO: Captain Wilm Hosenfeld
WHEN: 1944
WHAT: Wladyslaw Szpilman, the talented Polish pianist on whom the movie The Piano was based, was rounded up and transported to Treblinka (a concentration camp)  in 1942 after the Germans invaded Poland. He survived via a series of lucky incidents and was somehow left behind in Warsaw, where he stayed in hiding throughout the following years of World War II. In 1944, he was discovered by a German officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. Szpilman expected to be turned in, but in an act of kindness, Hosenfeld did the exact opposite - he helped Szpilman evade capture, bringing him food for sustenance and giving him a safe refuge.  The surprising act of kindness at the end of this story reminds us that there is good in everyone.

Captain Wilm Hosenfeld in uniform

Captain Wilm Hosenfeld in uniform (Yad Vashem)

4. AN ACT OF COMPASSION

WHO: The Prophet Muhammad
WHEN: Around 600 CE
WHAT: According to the Muslim tradition, Muhammad once saw a man working on a grinding mill, sobbing to himself all the while. Muhammad asked the man why he was crying, and he replied that he was sick and couldn’t work well - but he was worried about the repercussions if his master were to find out. Muhammad stepped forward and ground the grain in his place, saying: "Always call me if you have any grain to grind. I will do it for you." This classic good deed shows how the simple act of relating to other human beings can present opportunities to show compassion and help out.


An ancient hand mill

An ancient hand mill (Shutterstock)

5. AN ACT OF GUIDANCE

WHO: Jesus
WHEN: Around 30 CD
WHAT: Among the many stories of Jesus’ acts of kindness from the Christian tradition is this story from the Gospel of Luke, which saw the central religious figure speaking to his followers about helping others. “And the crowds asked him, "What then shall we do?" And he answered them, "Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise." This story shows the importance of giving positive, compassionate advice to those who follow our example.

A classical depiction of Jesus and his followers

A classical depiction of Jesus and his followers (Shutterstock)

As well as managing Goodnet.org, Elana writes happy headlines with a particular focus on yoga, meditation and family matters. She has a background in online journalism and web content.

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