The original book gives examples of random acts of kindness and provides many quotes about kindness, all of which are generally inspiring, thought-provoking, and uplifting.
It's impossible, I think, to imagine that there is a person alive who wouldn't agree that the concept of performing acts of kindness as the book describes is anything other than a good thing to do. However, after years of hearing people talk about the random acts of kindness they have done, I have a beef about the way this idea is often being put into practice.
I think it stems from the fact that I work with a group of behavior specialists who talk a lot about the fact that every behavior has a motivator; in other words, everything a person does is done because he is motivated by something to do it. Of course, that motivation - the dangling carrot, if you will - varies from person to person and from situation to situation. Sometimes it's money, sometimes it's power, sometimes it's recognition, sometimes it's just plain fun, but the reason people do things is that they hope to get something they want in return.
In my estimation, what Anne Herbert meant when she scribbled those words on that placemat was that she believed in altruism; she believed that people in general could be motivated just by the idea that they could influence the well-being of others and that knowing that would generate a desire to reach out in some way to do something kind. I think she intended for people who carried out random acts of kindness to be satisfied just by feeling like they'd done something good for someone else.
Martin Luther King talked about the concept of selfless love and said that people should "create redemptive goodwill toward all men ... an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return."
Of course I agree; of course I recognize that the world would be a better place if we all practiced more kindness. My concern comes from the way that I've witnessed random acts of kindness being put into practice, with the person or persons performing the kind act telling others about what they have done.
In my opinion, talking about the fact that one did a good deed turns that act into something of a boast; telling others about the kindness starts to seem more like an opportunity to proclaim one's own goodness and, from the way I see it, the generosity of the act is tainted by such a declaration.
I understand the intended chain reaction, the rippling effect that can come from hearing about a way that someone has helped someone else. I have often said that peer pressure can sometimes be a good thing, and I can see how one could be inspired or could even just glean an idea for a way to try to help another person from hearing about someone else's act of kindness.
But I think that what the originator of this concept actually meant to inspire is not only the performance of random acts of kindness but also anonymous ones. I think a true act of kindness or generosity bears no witness and has no strings attached. I think that if any information is to be given out about the exchange of kindness after a random act from a stranger it should actually come from the recipient, not from the giver. That, to me, preserves the purity of the altruism; that makes an act of kindness what it is really supposed to be: a deed of benevolence that sets up an opportunity for the spread of more of the same, which protects the basis of the original idea and extends the hope that all of mankind may someday, somehow be touched and inspired by kindness, just for the sake of being kind.
So here's the challenge of the second Exercise in Perspective that I want to share: Do something kind for someone else and don't tell anyone about it. Don't do it because you think you should and don't expect anything at all in return - not recognition, not thanks, not good karma, not gratitude. Just enjoy the feeling it gives you - that's really more than enough reward.