America the Tender

America the Tender

by David O'Rielly

The Philadelphia Inquirer

 

Hi. This is the voice of your conscience. Could I have a word with you?

 

I’ve noticed lately how news reports of drive-by shootings and random acts of violence have got you edgy. Every day you complain how people have grown dishonest and greedy and rude. You say the city seems shabby, that kids today have no values - that society is spinning out of control.

 

But friend, all your complaining does nothing to make the world better. Sip. Zilch. Nada. And the more you retreat from the world’s problems, the unhappier you get.

 

So as your conscience, I think it’s time you got off ;your - no, this is not my move-to-a-commune speech again. It’s a ‘90s idea, sort of, but it has roots in all the world’s religions. And it’s not "liberal" or "conservative" either.

 

Are you ready? Here it is:

 

Kindness.

 

Whaddaya mean, it sounds "wimpy"?

 

OK. It’s a little wimpy. But how does "random acts of kindness" sound? Or this: guerilla kindness. Cool, huh?

 

The idea is simply to do things - unexpected little things - for other people, whether you know them or not. It’s called the "Random Acts of Kindness" movement, and it started on the West Coast three years ago, or 12 years ago, depending on how you count.

 

Fine. Sure. Call it a new-age fad if you want to. But some people see it as a tool for healing our sick society.

 

"These are awful times. There is hardness in people’s facts. Children wear bruises and forget to laugh," writes Vermont psychologist Dawna Markova in the introduction to a new book, Random Acts of Kindness. "Our souls are leaking. We are not moving toward anything."

 

But each of us (she means you) can "decrease the suffering in the world by adding to the joy." And one of the best ways to do that, she says, is through an act of kindness, which she calls "a salve for wild attacks of loneliness, fear and despair" that "reconfirms that each of us does belong, that we are all interconnected."

 

Assembled by the editors of tiny Conair Press, Random Acts of Kindness is a 160-page anthology of kindnesses remembered by 65 anonymous contributors.

 

One recalls giving a quarter to a child in a video arcade and watching his face light up. Another tells how, for five years, he and his brother have secretly been washing and waxing an elderly neighbor’s car. "My automotive angel," the woman marvels, mystified.

 

Another recalls watching an airline passenger give up his seat to a businessman desperate to get to an important meeting. Another recalls the time she sat down for breakfast in a luncheonette and discovered her coffee had already been paid for. "Someone paid for 20 coffees and you are number eight," the waitress explained.

 

Soon 20 patrons were sitting "with big funny smiles on our faces, looking at everyone else in the restaurant, trying to figure out who had done this incredible thing."

 

Published last year in Berkeley, Calif., Random Acts of Kindness is one of a growing number of books on random kindness. Most emanate from San Francisco, where the movement began 12 years ago as a simple phrase.

 

That was when Anne Herbert, a San Francisco feminist writer, pacifist and professional house sitter, surmised that the world would be a better place if people practiced "kindness and senseless acts of . . ." Senseless what?

 

She wasn’t sure. And so for three months she wondered what sentiment went with kindness and mulled it over with friends. She settled at last on the final word, and in her column in the alternative publication CoEvolution Quarter (now called the Whole Earth Review), Herbert urged readers to "practice kindness and senseless acts of beauty." The idea, she explained, was to "plant daffodils where there are none."

 

Her magical phrase circulated in the Bay Area and among social activists nationally through the ‘80s, but it didn’t take off until 1991, when a San Francisco woman saw it scrawled on a warehouse wall and jotted it down.

 

Her husband, a junior high school teacher, posted it in his classroom, and one of seventh graders passed it on to her mother Laura Adair, who mentioned it in her San Francisco Chronicle column.

 

Glamour magazine saw the column and urged readers to "practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty." Five months later, in May ’92, the politically conservative Reader’s Digest informed its 20 million readers: "Here’s one underground movement you’ll want to join."

 

Now it’s above-ground and rapidly turning into an industry. A Connecticut man reports that he has sold more than 15,000 bumper stickers, and Impact Publishers has come out with Guerilla Kindness by Gavin Whitsett, an Indiana communications professor who decided to write the book after he saw a "Practice Random Acts of Kindness" bumper sticker.

 

His suggestions are typical of those in most of the new "kindness" books, e.g.:

  • Bury nickels in the sand of public sandboxes and under slides and swing sets so that children may find them.
  • Put flowers under the windshield wipers of a stranger’s car.
  • Include a $1 lottery ticket when giving out tips.
  • Take a Polariod-type camera to a party, take photos of couples who seem to be in love, and give them the photos.
  • Clip the coupons you don’t want, and place them around the supermarket.

The cry for more and greater kindness may sound like a new-age fad - like a ‘90s version of happy faces or "Have a nice day" slogans. But your conscience would remind you that this "kindness movement" has been around awhile.

 

"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you," said Jesus.

 

"What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others," said Confucius.

 

"We should behave to our friends as we would wish our friends to behave to us," said Aristotle.

 

"What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary," wrote the Jewish sage Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus.

 

The Dalai Lama would agree. "My religion is kindness," says he. And the same could be said of Devorah Halberstam of Brooklyn, N.Y.

 

Her 16-year-old son Ari, was one of four Hasidic Jewish boys shot on the Brooklyn Bridge March 1. A man who admits to hating Jews has been charged.

 

Ari, who devoted much of his free time urging non-practicing Jews to be more observant and who wore the distinctive black clothing of Hasidic Jews, was shot as he and his friends returned from the hospital where their movement’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, was a patient. The others survived. Ari died 12 days later.

 

Instead of raging bitterly and calling for vengeance, however, his mother called on Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Gov. Mario Cuomo to enact legislation "encouraging students in all our schools to spend at least an hour a week doing acts of kindness."

 

"Some people have bitterness," Halberstam said in a telephone interview, "but our teaching is to turn and do everything for the good. I don’t see anger and hatred."

 

Her movement, the ultra-orthodox Lubavitchers, believes that good works will hasten the arrival of Messioch, the divine era on Earth. Ari’s death is "beyond my understanding," she said, "but I believe there was a purpose. People are doing kindnesses in his name around the world.

 

"Don’t misunderstand. My feelings, my suffering, will always be there. But this (her urging people to do kindness) is he most solid way I can eternalize my son."

 

Many people don’t need books or slogans or movements to compel them toward acts of kindness, of course.

 

"I baked some banana bread for some people who gave me a ride home," recalled Michelle T. Pauls, interviewed at the Reading Terminal Market.

 

"I shoveled our whole block when it snowed," said Cindy of Allentown, who declined to give her last name. Her companion, Michael Melucci, a Coopersburg, Pa., doctor, said he didn’t charge patients "when they really can’t afford to pay."

 

Pam Moench, who works at the Philadelphia Friends Center, recalled how two women had cut ahead of her recently as she was about to order a cappuccino at the Reading Terminal Market. "When they realized what they did, they were so apologetic they bought my cappuccino for me."

 

But a homeless Vietnam veteran, who lives in a van with three dogs and gave only the name of Erik, paused for a long moment when asked about kindness.

 

"People walk away from me. They think I’m a drug addict or a bum," he said, and he told how security guards tailed him whenever he went into a store or mall.

 

Erik said he suffered post-traumatic-distress syndrome from his combat days in Vietnam and had a "hard time being with other people." Nevertheless, he said, his is aiding a fellow ex-Marine apply for veterans’ benefits because he is on "hard times."

 

But Chuck Wall, a professor of management at Bakersfield Community College in Bakersfield, Calif., says it doesn’t hurt to teach kindness.

 

"I was listening to the radio one day last fall when I heard the news announcer say, "We have another random act of senseless violence to report,’" Wall explained in a telephone interview. "And I thought to myself, ‘Boy, if you just took out the word violence and put in kindness, you’d turn a negative into a positive.’"

 

So Wall, 53, gave all his students an assignment to perform some act of kindness and report on it. "And some of them said, ‘What do you mean by kindness? What do you want us to do?’" he recalled.

 

"But I said, ‘I can’t define kindness because it’s so value-laden. And if I do, you’ll just give me back my own definition. So you all have to work it out for yourselves.’"

 

One student handed out blankets to the homeless. One backed out of a hard-to-find parking space and gave it another (astounded) driver. One paid his mother’s utility bill; another took her 9-year-old daughter along and visited the sick at a hospital - a practice they continue.

 

The Associated Press splashed a story all over the globe about Wall’s assignment. People magazine profiled him in December, and in February he was on Oprah Winfrey’s show. Now he’s in demand as a speaker all over the country.

 

"Kindness is not the solution for our country’s problems," Wall insists, "but it’s the direction we have to go in to prepare ourselves mentally to begin to think about how we solve violence."

 

Still, your conscience will concede that this kindness-movement stuff can get a bit, um, mushy. Meladee and Hanoch McCarty, authors of Acts of Kindness (Health Communications, Deerfield Beach, Fla.), suggest that we write "warm personal notes" on our fax messages to "build a relationship"; keep Groucho glasses on our desks "as a reminder to lighten up"; tuck love notes into the family laundry, and remember to answer the phone in a "warm, nurturing voice."

 

Oh, please.

 

But your conscience can’t argue with the McCartys’ suggestions that we (that means you) give blood, volunteer at a soup kitchen, let other drivers in on the expressway, sweep someone else’s driveway, or buy a toy for a homeless child.

 

If Anne Herbert had returned the messages left by your conscience (in a warm, nurturing voice) on her answering machine, your conscience could report what Herbert thinks of the movement she has spawned - including the proposed bill in Congress to make the week of Feb. 14 "Random Acts of Kindness Week," and the U.S. Postal Service’s contemplation of a stamp featuring the "random acts of kindness" theme.

 

Herbert, 43, could also comment on the fact that Conair Press stands to gross $1.8 million on its Random Acts of Kindness book, for which she won’t get a dime in royalties. (Conair Press dedicated its book to Herbert but misspelled her first name.) But perhaps she is too kind to comment; she didn’t return her calls.

 

But Herbert, too, is surfing the kindness wave she generated. Her new Random Kindness & Senseless Acts of Beauty (Volcano Press, Volcano, Calif.) is a slender volume of just 260 words, which accompany an illustrated fable of frogs and insects and animals who discover they each have power and that they’re "all in the circle together."

 

Herbert’s message is still a simple and luminous as it was 12 years ago.

 

"Anything you want there to be more of, do it randomly," she writes. "Don’t wait for reasons. It will make itself be more, senselessly."

 

Now will you listen to your conscience?

 

The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, April 3, 1994

 

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