Last Friday I was presented evidence — through direct experience — confirming what I argued in my The Last Selfless Act article. I discovered there are real people who are really willing to help with nothing in it in the end for them on their end. I was walking to the bank when my Blackberry rang with the following:

Janna is calling!

I answered the phone — and through the static and the inaudible haze that is Cingular on a cloudy and windy day — I heard a man’s voice piping from my phone in an Australian accent. The man told me he found a Blackberry on the Subway in Manhattan and when he checked the phone log my phone number was the last number called. He asked me if I knew who owned the Blackberry.

I shouted into the phone my eternal thanks because the Blackberry belonged to my wife Janna! The Anonymous Stranger said he’d “bring it to me.” I told him I wasn’t in Manhattan and neither was Janna. I asked him where he was. He told me he was in the Union Square area. I asked if he’d be willing to go into the big Barnes and Noble in Union Square and leave the phone with their Lost and Found folks?

He said he would. I asked him to please leave a note with the phone detailing his name and address so we could send him a thank you. He told me that wasn’t necessary. I told him I wanted to thank him.

He told me that wasn’t necessary. We hung up the phones and I sighed that Janna’s Blackberry — her lifeline of communication support — was found so quickly and so kindly. She uses her Blackberry so much that the plastic holster is loose from wear and tear. She had the phone in her coat pocket and when she sat down on the subway, the phone slid — as it always does — out of its holster and onto the seat next to her.

She now uses my holster. Five minutes later my Blackberry rang again with the announcement Janna was calling. The Anonymous Stranger said he was in Barnes and Noble and he was handing over the phone to Lost and Found. He wanted my name to put on the phone for safekeeping. I gave him my name and I again asked for his. He told me that wasn’t necessary.

I thanked him again and again he told me, “That isn’t necessary.” When we disconnected for the final time, I struggled to give the moment meaning and context in light of some of the cynical comments my previous post received arguing against the idea that acts can be selfless and only beneficial to one side.

There was no benefit for our Anonymous Stranger. His act for us was selfless in every way. Our new — albeit unknown — friend did the right thing as a person in the world where Duty is the Moral Imperative and selfless acts are the ordinary expectation of the day. We are forever grateful.


  1. Buddhists sometimes refer to this selfless acts as wise selfishness. It makes one feel light and wonderful to help others, especially when there is no expectation of recompense.

  2. Welcome to Urban Semiotic, Derrick and thanks for your unique insight!
    So your take is the Anonymous Stranger was getting a benefit and the act was not selfless?
    What if he wasn’t a Buddhist?

  3. It doesn’t matter what sort of paradigm a civil act is born of. We all know how refreshing to help and be of service. It makes everyone feel more alive more connected.
    I used to be really cynical about people and culture but I now believe people are wired to be kind.

  4. Hi Derrick!
    I thank you for your unique insight. I, too, think people are wired to be kind — but to expect anything in return for the kindness is cynical and therefore destroys the selfless act.
    Your Avatar is interesting. What does it indicate?

  5. David- There are some people who transcend Cartesian dualism, and see others, in fact everything, as themselves. i believe each of us and her/his environment are co-creating each other and there is no separation as Descarte described and since his time, most people follow his paradigm of dualism. If they didn’t war would make no rationality. This view is sold to most people as being good for business and the “bottom line”. It can not be disproven that people do everything for selfish reasons, but this does not prove that they do things for only selfishness. Intution tells non-dualists the truth in this and other cases, but most people look down on intuition as being a lower way of seeing things than scientific rationality thanks to Descarte, moderated slightly by Bertrand Russell. If one sees things more in line with the description of “reality” described by Henri Bergson, wherein intuition is a “first hand” experience and logic and rationality is a mechanical process, one starts to see we have been led astray by our overly “rational” and “scientific” leaders to control us by using this lie of dualism. Our goal on earth could be making earth move in the direction of heaven, as opposed to the obverse which is in keeping with the current Cartesian war paradigm demanding “proof” of selfless acts, when only an experience of intuition and insight such as you gained from your Blakberry experience showed you. If people saw others as themselves, they would be much less likely to kill them. They would also be more likely to accept alien ideas such the positive side to intuition. Intuition is largly looked down upon as being a feminine trait. There was much talk of “feminine intuition” before the ’60’s, but after that time many became intuitive, and the phrase “feminine intuition,” disappeared, but it still retains much stigma.

  6. Hey fred!
    That’s a heavy comment! I enjoyed reading it and making all the connections.
    You’re right that selflessness requires no proof — but when proof is provided in the condition of the experience it makes one stand in wonder and awe in realizing we may not be completely alone in the world.
    Your comment reminded me of another article that is even more brazen in its selflessness and, once again, Janna and I were the ones being salvaged from our own unconsciousness:

  7. Its a mass of text. The text is from a Buddhist text called The Rain of Wisdom. I layered all the text together to create what I thought of as an eclipse.
    The concept was to reflect how words might get in the way of wisdom. Yet, I write nonetheless.

  8. Well done, Dave!
    I’m glad it was your natural instinct to do the right thing when other lesser people might’ve just felt they made a gold discovery and run off with the goods.
    I’m a big believer in thanking people and rewarding folks who go out of their way for you and do you real favors and to decline an offer of thanks is almost as cruel as never doing the right thing in the first place — but that’s a topic for another article on another day.

  9. I always wonder about those news stories that seem to pop up in the media every so often detailing someone finding a bag of money or jewels, taking time to find the rightful owner, then getting very pitiful token of appreciation for their efforts.
    Those stories always seem to be based on the premise that the good deed wasn’t better rewarded. A recent story of this variety was the cabbie who returned a bag of diamond rings — even though the jeweler had basically stiffed him with a 30 cent tip. The subconscious moral of the story seems to be that the driver should have kept the rings for himself.
    It’s refreshing to hear stories of people doing the right thing, even though there is no reward in it for them.
    I believe doing good deeds builds good karma. I also believe that most people do the right thing most of the time.
    I once left a 35mm camera in a classroom when I was in high school and someone brought it to me later in the day. About 10 years later, I found several credit cards and military identification at an airport and gave them to a police officer. A couple of years after that, my wife’s parents left a video camera at a TSA checkpoint — the TSA people were kind enough to bring it to the gate after we realized it had been left at the x-ray machine after we had boarded the airplane.

  10. Hi Chris —
    Right! If you’re doing the right thing, then it shouldn’t matter how the other person acts because you are doing the selfless thing and not seeking a reward.
    It’s good to know you’ve had fine things happen to you, too. That cabbie story is interesting.
    Tainted money and goods can really have ill-effects that tempt death. Look at Anna Nicole and everyone who ever touched that inheritance money — the son of the father, Anna’s son, Anna — I don’t think the dying’s done yet!

  11. David,
    I was hoping there would be another article regarding this topic after “The Last Selfless Act.”
    Why is it that many people consider the good feeling one gets from doing something nice for someone else a selfish thing?
    I don’t think that in the case of your Anonymous Stranger, he thought to himself, “I’m going to find the rightful owner of this phone only because it will make me feel good!”
    Performing a selfless act for another is just that–selfless. The good feeling one gets from doing such a thing is only a by-product of the deed and it does not negate the selfless nature of the act.

  12. Well said, Emily!
    The guy was friendly and nice but it was no big deal to him. I think if we’d been in the area he would’ve walked it to us and we could’ve thanked him in person. It was just part of his day — not a big deal.
    It was a big deal to us, though.

  13. That makes sense, Dave. It was good to write the article and get out the frustration a bit.
    Toys for Tots is a great program. I grew up giving to Operation Santa Claus.

  14. David,
    Your frustration at not being able to adequately thank the Anonymous Stranger for his selfless deed reminds me of the first “collision” I had when I was learning to drive. I was driving my little brother to school one very cold morning and we were just a couple of blocks away from his elementary. A combination of bright morning sunlight in my eye, speeding through a sharp turn and being a cocky teenage driver found my car sailing over a curb, through someone’s front yard and directly towards their house. I narrowly missed hitting their house and the minivan parked in their driveway. Everyone shuttling their kids to school saw this little stunt and I got quite a few horrified looks from ‘helicopter parents!’ :mrgreen:
    The family whose house I narrowly missed hitting was also preparing to take their two children to school. In fact, the father was standing on the porch with his two daughters, backpacks and sack lunches in hand, when I came barreling through their front yard.
    A parent of one of my brother’s friends pulled up and offered to take my brother to school. As one of my tires was blown out and I knew the parent, I accepted her offer. The man whose house I hit insisted that I wait inside his house until a parent could come pick me up, and he left to take his daughters to school. His wife, who was feeding her newborn, allowed me to use their telephone and offered me coffee while I waited. When the husband came back he immediately began changing my flat tire! In the freezing cold! And here I am, the idiot that almost crashed into his house, sipping coffee in his warm kitchen! I went out and tried to offer what little help I could, or at least to stand out in the freezing cold with him, but he insisted that I wait inside.
    Very embarrassed and feeling quite undeserving of their selfless help, I apologized profusely to the couple for my asinine stunt and repeatedly thanked them for their kindness. They insisted that it was not a big deal. When my mother arrived, she tried to either give her phone number or get theirs so that she could arrange to repair the tire marks in their grass. They refused the offer, again stating that it was no big deal.
    I finally took matters into my own hands and, since it was close to Christmas and I drove by their house every morning taking my brother to school, dropped by with a package of goodies for them and their children. They seemed almost put-off by my insistence to thank them, like they thought there was nothing extraordinary about their actions. I wanted to make sure they knew that their actions were quite extraordinary, and I simply would not let them go unnoticed!

  15. This story reminded me something personal.
    Back in India, we used to go for a retreat in every winter (as the winter is very pleasant there 😀 ) along with our extended family. It used to be a BIG get together consisting 30/40 people and was great fun.
    Once we went to the zoo when I was a toddler, barely 1 year old. My mother went to the restroom and I was with someone else. Somehow I started walking or crawling or something similar and got separated from the group. All the members started looking around for me after my mother came back and started making announcement but never found me. After almost 45 minutes there was another announcement that somebody found a little girl and wanted her parents to meet over a certain place.
    My grandpa and my mother met one gentleman who was carrying me on his shoulder, bought me some balloons to calm me down and finally handed me over to my mother. He also came to the zoo with his family and it was him who discovered me crying in front a cage.
    My grandpa wanted to invite him and his family to our house for a dinner, he refused. He said – he was glad that I didn’t get lost – that was more important. He didn’t even divulge his name or address.
    My mother and my grandpa realized they were indebted to that person forever which couldn’t be repaid by a reward.
    On the contrary, I remember taking care of a sick roommate of mine once till her parents reached town when I was in college. When her parents reached town they arranged to take her back home. I went to see her off, her father handed me over some money saying – “Thank you for taking care of my daughter…”…I don’t remember the rest because I started fuming.
    I never felt so insulted in my life.
    I took care of my friend just out of humanity, not for reward or money. My friend puked all over me when she was unconscious, if I was not there to clean the mess up she would have stayed there for next two days.
    Did her father think my ‘help’ could get ‘even’ by giving me some money back? Can ‘money’ get things even? So my friend’s father could explain everyone that he paid her daughter’s roommate back because she took care of her???
    I don’t get it.
    A simple ‘thank you’ and a little reassurance ‘this is my name and number…let me know if you need help…ever” – would have been elegant and civilized enough.

  16. Katha —
    Thank you for your story.

    On the contrary, I remember taking care of a sick roommate of mine once till her parents reached town when I was in college. When her parents reached town they arranged to take her back home. I went to see her off, her father handed me over some money saying – “Thank you for taking care of my daughter…”…I don’t remember the rest because I started fuming.
    I never felt so insulted in my life.

    Your response to my article tomorrow will indeed be interesting.

  17. What a refreshing post!
    I have long argued that the news report devote half of its programming to good news of this sort. How much better would we all feel knowing there are good people out there as well as bad?

  18. Thanks for the wonderful comment, Sonja! We welcome you to Urban Semiotic! It is definitely important that good people stand up and then get recognized for their good deeds.

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