In 1982, seated in a restaurant in Sausalito, California, Anne Herbert felt inspired to jot down her thought on a place mat. Most of us doodle away while sipping coffee in some busy or lonely corner of a cafe. Ann felt differently that day. Prompted by her inner voice, she wrote the following words — "Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty" – unaware that she had started a cascade of charity.
Giving strikes most people as an acceptable way to share the pie one has inherited from parents and ancestors or earned with the sweat of one’s brow. Usually, many resort to charity for tax saving reasons, and fewer are driven by altruism. Yet others donate to become and remain prosperous. Indians are known for their rich donations to temples, gurudwaras, and churches, which are made by earnest followers of the faiths seeking to insure their lives and wellbeing against divine wrath and ill-will.
Spontaneous charity is rarer. To inspire people to practise kindness and to "pass it on" to others – unknown strangers one may never meet or see – is a novel way to connect ourselves with one another.
Ann Herbert’s innocent call that day for random kindness struck a chord as people started spontaneously being kind to someone. At toll booths, a driver ready to pay the toll would be asked by the toll attendant to move on because the toll had already been paid by the car ahead. At checkout counters in grocery and department stores, it would warm the cockles of some shopper’s heart at being told by the checker, “No need. Your payment is taken care of!”
In trains and buses, tickets randomly bought for someone without knowing the person for whom the ticket was purchased became other ways of being spontaneously generous.
News of such acts of kindness spread initially from word of mouth, later gaining more publicity through media coverage. Recipients too, took to the internet to share their joyful personal experiences with random kindness, while others shared ideas on ways to be kind. “Leave your Story” segments started filling the internet and grew in popularity.
Finding the first-person stories gripping, a publisher selected some for inclusion in a book. Published in February 1993, “Random Acts of Kindness, True stories of acts of kindness,” set off a chain reaction with features appearing in newspapers and hundreds of radio and TV outlets disseminating the cause.
The random kindness movement found advocates even among academia. Modelling his course around the published book, towards the end of 1993, a Bakersfield, California, professor assigned his class to do a random act of kindness – unleashing yet another flood of stories.
By 1995, enough momentum had built up, leading to the creation of the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, which seeks to serve as a resource for individuals and communities committed to spreading kindness. The Foundation’s mission is to ensure the concept of random charity continues to spread. Their hope is that “it will carry on until the beauty of simple kindness touches–and changes–us all.”
A growing pool of disciples has given further boost to the random kindness movement by suggesting various ways to be kind and surprise someone. Among others, one can choose to pay for someone’s groceries, help a senior with their groceries, walk a neighbor's dog, babysit their child for free, mow someone’s garden, shovel a neighbor's driveway when it snows or clean it when it is flooded, buy a Thanksgiving Holiday Meal or pay for Christmas presents for someone less fortunate, and so on.
Together those “surprise” ways to give demonstrate how giving – when handled spontaneously and without expectation of gratitude or any other agenda – cheers and elevates both the donor and the recipient. Such acts of generosity leave recipients surprised and elated, while leaving the givers strangely gratified.
There is fulfilment in knowing you made someone’s day brighter even if for just that day or moment. But more importantly, the experience of receiving without asking and that too from a kindly stranger kindles a spark that motivates recipients, in turn, to randomly disburse kindness.
In the dismal context of Covid, many more ways are emerging to lessen people’s isolation and address their vulnerabilities and needs in “surprising ways” best suited to the situation. With India until recently under a strict Covid lockdown and excruciating social distancing protocol, an online collective of "Caremongers India'' was set up on March 17, 2021 with the objective of reaching out to help the elderly and other vulnerable groups. Its uniquely topical message asks people to "Stop scaremongering and start caremongering."
“We are telling people to stop spreading fear and panic, and instead spread love,” says the founder, a tech professional and single mom located in Bangalore. One day, she received a call from a UK-based friend, requesting her to help arrange some medicines for her "very elderly parents.” The same day another friend living in the U.S. asked her, “Can you assist my parents so they can have their groceries and provisions for the month delivered to them?” Those requests set her thinking about many others whose elderly parents in need of support may not have anyone to call upon.
Posting a message on Facebook asking people to get in touch if they needed help, she was amazed that the response overwhelmingly was not from those seeking help, but from people from all over India who were offering to help.
After recently celebrating Diwali, which is the Festival of Lights and of sharing and spreading joy, and as we head into Christmas – another festival of caring and sharing, we need to think not only of our increased financial and emotional vulnerability in the wake of Covid, but also of the significance of charity.
While all major religions include charity as a normative feature, Hinduism leaves it to individual good will. Let’s all try to help without expectation and to do a favor without asking or wishing for anything in return.
(Neera Kuckreja Sohoni is an Indian American published author and opinion writer. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.)