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Kindness Movement

The kindness movement

by Leslie Barker
Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News

 

It may be nothing more than the smiley face of the ‘90s.

 

Or maybe, long after people have traded in their cars with the "random acts of kindness" bumper stickers, they’ll keep doing anonymous good deeds. The phrase picks up where warm fuzzies and "Have a nice day" left off. It began as a whisper a decade ago, took on a speaking-voice tone in the early ‘90s and has been all but shouted since last fall, when California professor Chuck Wall asked his students to perform a "random act of senseless kindness."

 

Bumper stickers, T-shirts and coffee mugs now urge people to support the movement. Towns and schools across the United States have designated a day or week or month for kindness. There was even a rumor, albeit unfounded, that the U.S. Postal service was issuing a kindness stamp.

 

"On one hand, you kind of bemoan the fact it takes a gimmick to leverage people into a compassionate mode," says the Rev. Bruce Buchanan, associate pastor of community ministries at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas.

 

"On the other hand, one of the most frightening things of 20th-century life is random violence. . . . This is an opportunity to show life can have random blessings as well as random curses we all seem to suffer from."

 

In the Stewpot, a day shelter for the homeless and community resource for low-income people, Mr. Buchanan, the director, has hung a banner: "Practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty." He bought it when his mother sent him $20 to buy something for the Stewpot its budget wouldn’t otherwise allow.

 

That was about two years ago, after he preached on random kindness. Ned Boshell heard the sermon and within a week, the semiretired entrepreneur had 500 business cards printed up: You have been attacked by a member of the GOOD GUERRILLAS whose mission is to perform daily acts of anonymous random kindness. Please join us - do an act today."

 

"It just seemed like a nice gesture to do, that’s all," he says. "It’s not like it was a revelation or word from the great beyond."

 

Mr. Boshell has gone through several printings of cards, which he distributes anonymously after he’s performed a good deed.

 

At least once a day when he drives through the toll booth, he checks to be sure the car behind him doesn’t have a toll tag. Then Mr. Boshell gives the attendant a dollar and a card, tells him he wants to pay for the driver behind him and instructs the attendant to hand that driver the card.

 

OK, so on a few occasions he’s seen the attendant pocket the money. But that doesn’t stop him from being randomly kind again. At restaurants, he tells the waiter he wants to pay for dessert at a certain table and gives the waiter a card to put on the pie or cake plate. Then he leaves the restaurant.

 

"No one, absolutely no one, has been cynical," he says. "I’m wondering what my average expenditure is. Probably a dollar." Given the price of going to a psychiatrist to feel good, he says, spending a buck is a pretty good deal.

 

Message on a napkin

 

The movement to do something random and nice for somebody can be traced back a dozen years. Legend has it that Anne Herbert, a California author and peace activist, wrote the phrase "Random acts of kindness and senseless beauty" on one cocktail napkin, then others, which she’d leave on restaurant tables.

 

Years later, a San Francisco woman saw it scrawled, Kilroy style, on a wall, copied it and gave it to her teacher husband. He put it on his bulletin board; one of his students gave it to her mother, a columnist, who wrote about it. Glamour magazine saw it and urged its readers to follow suit; Reader’s Digest did the same thing.

 

Last fall, Chuck Wall, a Bakersfield College professor assigned his students to commit one random act of senseless kindness. He was listening to a radio report of yet another act of senseless violence and decided to change the wording a little.

 

Dr. Wall, who recently spoke in Dallas, crosses his heart that he never heard of Ms. Herbert’s phrase before his class assignment. Ms. Herbert isn’t much on returning phone calls, so it’s hard to gauge what she thinks about Dr. Wall, the Kindness Crusade nonprofit group he started and the fact he’s trademarked "commit random acts of senseless kindness."

 

Their message is the same, although their choice of words varies a little. Maybe, when wire services picked up the story of Dr. Wall’s assignment, people were more ready than ever to hear about kindness.

 

People magazine did a story about him and his kindness movement. Oprah did a segment on kindness. Magnolia, Ark., sponsored a six-week Random Acts of Kindness campaign this past spring.

 

Last Tuesday, Santa Barbara Mayor Hal Conklin read a proclamation declaring July Random Acts of Kindness Month.

 

"We proclaim lots of things, from Boy Scout Day to Save the Earth Day," says the mayor from his California office. "Most go in one ear and out the other. This caught on and people were taken by it. It was unique enough that it was worth doing for more than just a day or week."

 

Even the U.S. Congress has joined the movement. House Joint resolution 357, introduced by Walter Tucker, D-Calif., would declare the week of Feb. 12, 1995, National Random Acts of Kindness Week. (The measure passed the House by voice vote and is still in the Senate.)

 

Example for Children

 

Ann Sharkey, business manager of Volcano Press, which reissued Ms. Herbert’s Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Beauty, says the movement is encouraging.

 

"We think it’s just wonderful, especially with the increased focus on domestic violence," she says from her California office. "If random kindness is practiced in the home, children will use it as an example." Anyone who’s not sure how to be kind, rest assured. Although Ms. Herbert’s book is more of a series of essays than a be-nice-and-here’s-how book, there are plenty of that genre out there.

 

The Signals public-television catalog sells T-shirts, sweatshirts and coffee mugs with her slogan. Sales are seemingly unstoppable; one woman even ordered a T-shirt for Oprah after watching her show about kindness.

 

Being kind can be as simple as giving another driver the parking space you were waiting for, returning a grocery cart to the store, letting someone else have the last piece of cake.

 

Then, if all goes according to plan, the person who has been the kindness recipient will turn around and commit another kindness on someone else. That’s what happened to Diana Luck, patient services director for The Bridge Breast Center in Dallas.

 

One day, her arms laden with library books to return, she realized she didn’t have a quarter to put in the parking meter. A man walked by, saw her distraught face, popped in a quarter and kept going.

 

"I don’t know who he was, and it was something small," she says. "But at that moment in my life, it made a big difference to me."

 

Next day, she was talking to a little boy in a fast-foot restaurant line. After determining which hamburger he wanted, he realized his dollar wasn’t enough to buy it plus a drink. So Ms. Luck, who was ahead of him in line, ordered the boy a soda when she ordered her meal.

 

Spreading the word

 

Chuck Wall is ecstatic to hear such stories. And boy, does he hear them. After every speech he gives (sometimes as many as eight a week), people call him, write him, stop him with their stories of kindnesses given and received.

 

At the recent conference of the Million Dollar Round Table of insurance agents, he got a standing ovation.

 

"I’m not talking about anything new," he says later. "It’s just a reminder of what we know and have forgotten. We’ve let the media, through violence, guide us in what we think, in what’s important, based on stories on the 6 o’clock news. This is a wake-up call, a reminder."

 

It never was supposed to be more than a classroom assignment. But now it’s bumper stickers and the Kindness Crusade, the nonprofit organization he started. He got a trademark on the phrase to prevent businesses from selling his bumper stickers for profit.

 

He doesn’t make a cent on them or the T-shirts the Kindness Crusade now sells; all profits go back into the organization.

"We’re desperate for a little kindness," Dr. Wall says. "All kinds of people are coming forward with ideas. The more ideas we come up with, the greater the possibility we can divert attention away from violence. We don’t have to spend money to be kind. It boils down to respect and dignity."

 

But because we are a society increasingly inured to violence, sometimes people are wary of niceness. Which is all the more reason to keep practicing it, says Carol Frank, executive director of the Salvation army’s Carr P. Collins Center.

 

"I certainly don’t think doing these things is foolish," she says. "It’s a sad commentary, however, on the growth of our country and society in general that there has to be a special campaign to do this. I think we have to be jerked up and gentled down to remember what we’re about is loving one another and caring for one another."

 

Making kindness an institution

Committing random acts of kindness may be getting a lot of attention these days, but Americans have a history of compassion and caring. So say the folks at the Caring Institute in Washington D.C.

 

Every year since its founding in 1985, the group receives hundreds of nominations for its National caring Awards. This year, finalists for the 20 awards include two Texans, Edie Lewis of Garland, who cares for troubled young people, and Dottie Fitchett of Tyler, who takes care of AIDS patients in her home. Monday, Caring Institute officials are scheduled to interview Ms. Lewis at her home.

 

In addition to the awards, the Caring Institute sponsors programs in schools, including national poster and essay contests. It is in the process of opening a museum dedicated to caring, including a hall of fame for caring Americans.

 

"We encourage and support the notion that we create meaningful lives by serving others," says Kathleen Brown, the group’s director of public affairs.

 

"The random kindness movement is . . . a reaction to the greed of the ‘80s, but we’ve had a history of remarkable people. Caring has been with us for a long time."

 

 - Leslie Barker

The Dallas Morning News - 1994

 

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