ARE GOOD DEEDS DEAD?
by Marja Mills
In the new movie "Pay It Forward," a sad-eyed 7th grader in
If he did a good deed for three people, helping them accomplish something they couldn't do on their own, and they each "paid it forward" by doing a good turn for three other people, the acts of kindess would multiply and gather momentum. That first good deed would be a lone pebble that pings down a mountain and sets in motion a thundering avalanche.
With its high concept and melodramatic ending, set to the lyrics of "Calling All Angels," the movie seems designed to be a call to action, a cousin to what sometimes is called the Random Acts of Kindness movement. But there's a funny thing about the Random Acts of Kindness movement: It's not as random as it seems.
Consider next month's oxymoron of planned spontaneity: the Sixth Annual Random Acts of Kindness Week.
Sixth annual? A designated week? (Nov. 6-13). Sounds more like planned kindness than random kindness.
Perhaps it is a sign of the times that efforts to promote individual acts of kindness are organized to the point that we have the Pay It Forward Foundation, the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, and Kindness Inc., another non-profit promoting demonstrations of kindness. All were formed within the last several years.
Like child's play, simple acts of kindess would seem to be the kind of natural, even impulsive, thing that is immune from being scheduled, organized, institutionalized.
Isn't this just something people take it upon themselves to do for their neighbors, their relatives, the occasional stranger on the train?
But then look at how, in just a few generations, modern life has transformed play from spontaneous pick-up ball on the corner to kids' soccer leagues and play dates.
"Earlier generations did this just out of normal, everyday courtesy and they didn't have to be told about committing an act of kindess," said Chuck Wall, a business professor and leading proponent of the acts-of-kindness movement.
"A neighbor needed help, you helped," Wall said. "It has (become) more difficult because we live almost anonymously in very densely populated communities. We don't even know our neighbors . . . People don't reach out like they used to to help each other."
Wall garnered national attention in 1993, when he assigned his business class at
Wall, who is blind, got the idea while listening to the radio. When a newscaster reported another "act of senseless violence," Wall wondered what would happen if he substituted "kindness" for "violence" in that equation.
In no time, Oprah Winfrey caught the fever and had Wall on the show to spread his message to her millions. Popular books by other authors promoted similar ideas.
It remains to be seen what new "pay-it-forward" projects are in the offing. Some schools already have taken up the idea.
On the kindness front, though, we can buy Kindness Coordinator Kits, Random Acts of Kindness lapel pins and, naturally, Random Acts of Kindness T-shirts. Not to mention the removable Random Acts of Kindness tattoos.
We have conferences on the topic, a growing stack of books about it, Web sites. Across the country and around the calendar, scores of communities have designated their own Random Acts of Kindness day.
"It does take the randomness out of it," said Wall. "But a premeditated act of kindess is not all bad either."
It's hard to argue against kindness, after all, especially in a country many see as rude, rushed, awash in affluence and violence. The acts-of-kindess ventures have registered with students young and old, communities big and small, and resulted in all kinds of worthy deeds.
Even skeptics who speak disparagingly of "do-gooders" and "goodie-goodies" have to give that to the movement.
You know the kind of random acts: raking leaves for an older neighbor, paying the toll for the car behind you, reaching into your wallet when you pass a homeless person.
One appeal of those sorts of person-to-person good deeds just might be that they tend to be rarer these days, especially when it comes to doing a good turn for a neighbor.
Tom Smith has tracked Americans' attitudes toward their neighbors as part of the General Social Survey he directs at the
"I think the shift in charity was that if you lived in a neighborhood or small town 30 or 40 years ago and you knew someone down the street and the husband was thrown out of work or disabled, you might help him out in some way," Smith said. "It was personal volunteer work more than giving money.
"I think now those things are done less on a person-to-person level, but more of it is done through organized charity efforts."
That means people have fewer obligations in their immediate surroundings, but also fewer opportunities to find satisfaction in lending a hand. "There is that very strong emotional gain that you get from seeing the good you've done," Smith said.
For his part, Wall said he is thrilled to have the idea of person-to-person good deeds lit up on movie marquees across the country.
"This movie that's just coming out is, I think, an outstanding example to demonstrate kindness is not a fringe element," Wall said. "A major movie coming out with that theme demonstrates that kindness is a major theme".
Certainly, efforts to promote good deeds and small acts of courtesy always have been around. There's the matter of organized religion, for starters.
The official slogan of the Boy Scouts of America, dating back to its founding in 1910, is "Do a good turn daily." (Not to be confused with the organization's official motto, "Be prepared.")
The movie's Web site, www.payitforward.com, has the usual Hollywood photos of stars Haley Joel Osment, who plays the 7th grader; Kevin Spacey, who is his lonely teacher; and Helen Hunt, the boy's mother.
But the site also links to the Pay It Forward Foundation, with oodles of ideas for committing good deeds.
In fact, the Pay It Forward Foundation came about just this summer, a few months after Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel, "Pay It Forward," hit bookstores. The movie, based on the book, opened over the weekend. With Hyde as a trustee, the foundation promotes pay-it-forward projects in schools.
"A small act of kindness can go a long way," Hyde says on the site. "A few things I've done are anonymously leaving breakfast every morning on the porch of an elderly local woman who had broken her wrist. Giving my truck to a younger friend when I bought a better car . . . And, of course, assisting people with car trouble."
Strangers helped Hyde with her own car trouble 20 years ago one
Hyde said she thinks the filmmakers snapped up the story because of its mix of optimism and grit. "It was something that had that optimistic feeling that people are saying they want and yet it was grounded in very gritty characters and almost a dark reality. So it wasn't so sweet you could die."
The movie owes a little something to "
"I really think there was a little bit of influence on my writing from `
Now, moviegoers can go online and record their own ideas for paying it forward, then send it on to the organization.
No doubt it is only a matter of time before someone schedules National Pay It Forward Day.