Public Property

Random acts of kindness are public property

by Jack Smith

 

I am not surprised to encounter some controversy over the origin of the maxim, "Today I will commit one random act of senseless kindness. Will you?"

 

As I said in a recent column, that precise version of the sentiment is attributed to Chuck Wall, a professor of human relations at Bakersfield College. Wall adapted it from a newscaster’s report of "another act of senseless violence."

 

"I thought if I just took out that word violence and put in the word kindness," Wall said, "I’d take a well-known negative phrase and turn it into a positive phrase."

 

Wall intended the saying as an assignment for his students, but it has spread far beyond the campus. It appears on more than 15,000 bumper stickers. I was the subject of an Oprah Winfrey show, and a resolution designating the week of Feb. 12, 1995, as "National Acts of Kindness Week" has been introduced in the House by Rep. Walter R. Tucker of Compton.

 

But of course there is nothing new under the sun. Thomas Rische of Torrance writes to inform me that a similar idea was expressed by columnist Adair Lara in the December, 1991, Glamour magazine and her article was condensed in the May, 1992, edition of Reader’s Digest.

 

Lara’s version of the maxim was "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty." She said she heard it was originated by Anne Herbert, a Marin County writer, who had written it on a Sausalito restaurant place mat where another guest saw it and copied it. Thus it flew.

 

I called Chuck Wall and he told me that he believes the phrase is probably generic, and he doesn’t care how many people copy it. "The more people who want to get in with variations the better off we’ll be," he said. When the slogan began bouncing around, he got so many calls from businesses hoping to capitalize on it that he had it copyrighted, to limit profits to charities. "This is not for making money off of," he said.

 

Rische said Lara is also philosophical about the widespread borrowing of the idea. "It becomes part of the culture, like Kilroy," she wrote, referring to the ubiquitous GI ghost of World War II. (Who has not seen the sign, "Kilroy was here," posted in the most unlikely places?)

 

In a letter to his colleagues, Tucker observed that his resolution "builds upon the dedicated work of Dr. Charles Wall and expresses the sense of Congress that all people should be encouraged to practice random acts of kindness and goodwill toward all men."

 

Tucker adds a long list of whereases to his letter, noting that a rape is committed every six minutes in the United States, 3 to 4 million women are battered by their mates every year, and every year there are 758 random acts of violence for every 100,000 persons.

 

He adds that the United States "strongly opposes random acts of violence, and all forms of intolerance and mean-spiritedness based on ethnicity, religion, race, gender or sexual orientation. We should be encouraged to practice random acts of kindness. . ."

 

Meanwhile, I believe I was the victim of a random act of violence in my earlier column on this subject. I wrote Oprah Winfrey had recently based a show on Wall’s maxim, and I suggested that if each of her 22 million viewers committed one act of kindness, "the world would suddenly be a better place to live in."

 

In print, however, that phrase came out a better place in which to live. Evidently my editor was obeying that mythical rule that one should not end a sentence with a preposition.

 

As I have often written, "A preposition is often the best thing to end a sentence with." It may be especially useful in avoiding that graceless phrase "in which."

 

The sainted H.W. Fowler called the so-called rule a "cherished superstition" and noted that it deprives English of its "remarkable freedom . . . and flexibility."

 

Also, I have often told the story that Winston Churchill, noting that an assistant had changed a sentence he had ended with a preposition, wrote in the margin: "This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put." There are no other versions of Churchill’s comment, but the point is the same.

 

Ernest Gowers, in "Plain Words," said: "There used to be a rather half-hearted grammarians’ rule against doing this [ending a sentence with a preposition], but no good writer ever heeded it. . . ."

 

I review this point only to reassure readers who might be shocked at my using a phrase that I have so publicly deplored. Actually, my editor is a woman of erudition, perspicacity and compassion, and when I fall, her net is always out to catch me in.

I say that as a random act of kindness.

 

The Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1994

 

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