Those who know me know that I operate by my phone calendar. Without it to refer to, I feel like a fish out of water. Knowing what each day and week holds makes me feel prepared for what’s on tap.

At the same time, I will admit that there’s something beautiful — even magical — about the unexpected. The sweetest things in life often are those we’re completely unprepared for.

How can we be swept off our feet if we know what’s going to happen? Receiving an unexpected gift from a loved one — or even from a total stranger — is one of life’s greatest joys, possessing the power to lift our spirits and pull us through difficult times. “Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated agent of human change,” says Bob Kerrey. I would agree.

Life is hard and can become dark over time if there’s no light. Thankfully, just a glimpse of light goes a long way. Similarly, a seemingly inconsequential act of kindness can make a tremendous impact. Have you ever received financial aid in a time of need? Knowing that you were overwhelmed with a project, has a friend dropped by to lend a helping hand? Or, after telling about that recent terrible experience that now has your heart in knots, has your spouse taken your hand and said those words that made everything okay?

For me personally, emails from readers of this column have brought light into my world. Not only has it been humbling to hear that my writing has brought people joy, but it’s also given me much-needed encouragement along the way.

My girlfriend and I recently went out for dinner. After we finished our meal, the waiter told us it had been paid for by a gentleman sitting across the way. Abbey immediately recognized the man as a fellow teacher at her school. As taken aback as I was by his kindness, I think it meant even more to Abbey. She’d had a challenging first year juggling teaching full-time and completing graduate school, so his paying for our meal gave her confidence that she’d proven herself capable during her first year of teaching.

In what was not one of my best moments, I recently locked myself out of my apartment. Because it was Saturday afternoon, no one was in the apartment complex’s office. My dad had a backup key, but I knew he was busy and wouldn’t be able to answer his phone. I’d heard of people using a credit card to open a locked door, but my wallet was locked in the apartment. It seemed my only option was to ask one of my neighbors if I could borrow their card.

In all honesty, if a random person asked me if they could borrow my credit card, my first instinct would be to ignore them. If they pressed the issue, my next move would be to thoroughly question their motives.

Luckily, the lady I approached was a more trusting person than I. She was so nice and understanding; in fact, she told me she recently locked herself out of her apartment and was able to “card” her door to get in. This lady must have been a burglar at one point in her life because she opened my door in less than a second. Nothing to it. Not only was I grateful for her help, but it humbled me to realize I wouldn’t have handled the situation with the grace and compassion that she did.

Perhaps even more powerful than receiving an unexpected act of kindness is giving one. Seeing the surprise and genuine joy that lights up the recipient’s face can have a deep impact on the giver as well.

Kindness is not only powerful, but it’s necessary in this world. Pope John Paul II asserted that “by allowing the light and healing presence of Christ to shine brightly through our lives,” all those coming into contact with us will discover the loving kindness of God.

A grandmother once saw a dress that she knew her granddaughter would like. With money being tight she asked the store owner if she could hold it for her. “Can I buy the dress for you?” asked another customer from behind.

“Thank you, but I can’t accept such a gracious gift,” the grandmother replied. The other customer then explained that she’d been homeless for three years and had it not been for the kindness of strangers, she wouldn’t have been able to survive.

“I’m no longer homeless and my situation has improved,” she said. “I promised myself that I would repay the kindness so many had shown me.” She paid for the dress and the only payment she would accept in return was a heartfelt hug.

One act of kindness can’t change the world, but it can change someone’s heart. Kindness is contagious; before we know it, an entire community has been lit up because of what started as a seemingly insignificant glimpse of light.

“How beautiful a day can be when kindness touches it.” — George Elliston