Toilet Paper & 100 Pennies

May 14, 2023

Thubten Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist abbess & frequent collaborator with the Dalai Lama, writes,

“When we finish the toilet-paper roll, do we install a new roll, or do we just leave a bare cardboard cylinder and let the next person who comes in replace it?  If the latter, it leaves others in a compromised position.  Great compassion starts with simple things like toilet paper.”

In Buddhist practice, compassion is an aspiration, not only to empathize with or feel another’s suffering, but also to commit to helping alleviate that suffering in some way, however modest.  In other words, compassion taps our thoughts, feelings & behaviors.

Encouraging compassion with simple acts is real.  For over a dozen years, the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation has maintained the power of such simple choices, summarized in its website masthead slogan: Conquering the world one random act of kindness at a time. 

The Dalai Lama has always taught that love & compassion are not luxuries but necessities, that without them, humankind can’t survive. 

We typically underestimate the potential of simple gestures like a smile or kind word, a sympathetic ear, an honest compliment, a compassionate touch… Yet think back to a time (hopefully that won’t take too long!) when you experienced a simple act of kindness from a perfect stranger: Didn’t that lighten your mood & restore your faith in humanity for at least a few minutes… & didn’t that gesture motivate you to reach out yourself with more compassion toward another? 

One thing that can trip us up about these simple acts is our unconscious expectation of tangible results.  But it’s our intention that’s most important: to uplift another fellow being, even for a few moments… to commit to “be[ing] the change we wish to see in the world.”  And we can never know for certain the depth of impact such a choice has on the recipient.

A stranger once attended a memorial service for a beloved woman in the community.  When asked how he knew the deceased, he pulled out a tattered piece of notebook paper from his pocket.  Decades earlier, he explained, that woman had been his high school teacher. One day, she had instructed the class to write down one positive thing about each of their classmates; that cumulative list was then given to each student.  The man confessed to feeling close to despair at various times over the decades since, but that list of his positive qualities had kept him from ending his life.  

That high school teacher never knew how powerfully she had impacted her student, yet his very existence provided the evidence!  We all need to feel seen, heard & honored.  When we have that experience, it can make a difference beyond our imagining.

On this Mother’s Day, besides your usual way(s) of celebrating your mother or some other special woman in your life, I encourage you to remember the powerful connection between compassion & simple acts of kindness.  If you’re not already doing this, consider more regular expressions of heartfelt gratitude for this woman, helping her with chores & errands, listening with extra care when she needs to process challenging emotions, & yes, whenever it applies, even remembering to change those toilet paper rolls! 

A great fortune begins with pennies accumulated gradually & consistently over time. Simple, regular acts of kindness grow a compassion that enriches & elevates our needy world.  Who knows, maybe such choices can one day heal it. 

Here’s to mothers everywhere, every day.



Do you have special ways of expressing compassion in your life?  I’d love to hear. 

Previous Post

"Add a Balloon"

Next Post

Appreciate Your Inner Critic!