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JACK SMITH

Be Kind, But Also Be Choosy

March 28, 1994|JACK SMITH

Until it began to appear on bumper stickers, I had not heard the phrase, "Today I will commit one random act of senseless kindness. Will you?"

Now I read of the origin and popularity of the saying in the Renegade Rip, the Bakersfield College newspaper of which I was once editor.

The pledge to commit "one random act of senseless kindness" was invented by Chuck Wall, a Bakersfield College human relations professor, and it received a great promotional boost recently when it was the subject of an Oprah Winfrey show.

It is said the show has an audience of 22 million in 65 countries. Obviously, if each one of those viewers committed one act of kindness, the world would suddenly be a better place in which to live.

One may wonder why Wall chose the word senseless . He explained on the show: "Listening to a newscaster say, 'We have another act of senseless violence to report,' I thought if I just take out that word violence and put in the word kindness, I'd take a well-known negative phrase and turn it into a positive phrase."

Perhaps the word senseless adds to the appeal of the vow. One's kindness need not make sense in any practical way. It won't make you any money. It won't get you elected to office. It might not even bring you any thanks.

What started as a class project has become rather a craze. More than 20,000 bumper stickers spelling out the message have been printed and 15,000 sold, the profit going to the Kern County Braille Assn.

Thousands of letters have been sent to Wall, some addressed simply "Kindness, Postmaster, Bakersfield, CA."

But I have read nothing describing any acts of kindness that have been done as a result of Wall's prescription. Perhaps acts of kindness, unlike sidewalk shootings and kidnap-murders, are not sensational enough to be featured by the media.

When Wall asks "Will you?" my immediate answer is, "Yes, I will." But what will I do? What act of kindness, exactly, will I perform?

As the Boy Scouts are urged to do, I might help a little old lady across the street; but in my condition, I am more in need of that help than able to give it.

It is easier to think of an act of mass violence than it is one random act of senseless kindness. Would the person we choose even know he had been the recipient of an act of kindness? Should we publicize our act or keep it anonymous?

I have been casting about for an act of kindness that I can perform. Can I just give money? Say $100 to a cancer fund? That seems like buying my way out. Besides, I couldn't keep it up every day.

How do I know the object of my kindness won't resent it? Short of dropping a dollar into a panhandler's can on the street, there's no way to be sure.

It can become very complicated. My wife and I saw the movie "Thicker Than Blood" on TV the other night, about a stockbroker whose bedmate becomes pregnant. Although they aren't married, she has the baby. Meanwhile, her two other children by another man, also not her husband, are in the father's custody. A further complication is that the child is born with traces of cocaine from his mother.

The stockbroker, played by Peter Strauss, thinking the child is his, loves him like a son. The mother, portrayed by Rachel Ticotin, kidnaps the boy and flies him to Miami, where she takes up with another man. Strauss has the boy returned and sues for custody.

But wait a minute. Ticotin drops a bombshell: Strauss is not the father, and a blood test bears that out. The biological father then comes forward and claims parenthood. Are you with me? Meanwhile, the mother has married the guy in Miami and he wants the child, too.

Strauss says he loves the boy like a son, and the boy loves him. The boy bears this out. In the end, the judge grants custody to Strauss. The mother is devastated.

Strauss' fight for the boy is surely an act of kindness. But is it kind toward the mother? OK, she has a drug habit and sleeps around. But she loves the boy and is, in fact, his mother.

You see, kindness isn't always simple, and Solomonic judgments don't always leave everyone happy.

So you have to give it a lot of thought before you commit an act of kindness. You must consider all the ramifications. The predicament in which Strauss found himself is not likely to envelope me. But I still haven't figured what act of kindness I can commit without making someone unhappy.

And don't forget another old saying: No good deed goes unpunished.

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