Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Random Acts of Kindness

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: Land of Penny Pinchers

The outpouring of U.S. aid, private and public, for tsunami victims is wonderful. But, frankly, the affected nations will get all the money they can absorb for the moment, and Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka are far from the worst off in the world. "The really big money can be better and more usefully absorbed by developing good health and education programs in the poorest countries," noted Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development. "But that's not as visible or heroic."

A few years ago there was a fad for Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty. Commuters impulsively paid tolls for queues of cars behind them, suburbanites planted daffodils along roadways and everyone made a point of saying "Have a nice day."

"Anne Herbert. Tall, blonde and 40...lives in Marin, one of the country's ten richest counties...It was in a Sausalito restaurant that Herbert jotted the phrase down on a paper place-mat, after turning it around in her mind for days. "That's wonderful!" a man sitting nearby said, and copied it down carefully on his own place-mat. "Here's the idea," Anne says, "Anything you think there should be more of, do it randomly." Her own fantasies include breaking into depressing-looking schools to paint the classrooms, leaving hot meals on kitchen tables in the poor parts of town and slipping money into a proud old woman's purse. Says Anne, " Kindness can build on itself...And as it spreads, so does a vision of guerilla goodness."

My fantasy is a Ministry of Good Works, supplanting all current non-profits and making charitable appeals, fund-raisers and begging in the streets unnecessary. Each year citizens would designate an amount to be extracted monthly from their credit cards for charitable purposes and, if they wished, specify the sorts of projects in which they were interested. The ministry would then disperse its funds to projects geared to accomplish these ends without the overhead costs of begging letters, advertising and gimmickry, and contributors could get their duties of beneficence done without sorting through junk mail displaying pictures of starving children.

Apart from the opportunity costs there is nothing wrong with random acts of kindness per se and, if we worried about opportunity costs we would go crazy. The cost of one holiday party would buy lots of mosquito netting and malaria medication or fund a year's secondary education for a qualified girl in Kenya who couldn't otherwise afford it if we sent it to the Canadian Harambee Education Society. But parties are fun, and being a gracious hostess, making guests feel comfortable, giving them treats and party favors, is a very pleasant thing for all concerned. And random kindness is essentially being a gracious hostess on a grand scale.

But don't think for a moment that is has anything to do with moral goodness or making the world a better place. Dives was having a party while Lazarus was lying at the gate with the dogs licking his sores; and presumably Mrs Dives, the gracious hostess, was making conversation, passing the canapes and party favors, and making everyone feel good.


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Anonymous said...

Good site.

Stay kind.

We should all strive to be unable to recite the random acts of kindness we do in one day.