How could this be? In a Catholic school? Here? This is what they’re teaching our kids? I stopped, transfixed.
I had parked my car and sauntered into the Catholic middle school in search of my son. I was about to turn down the hall that led to his math class when I was struck by one of the big posters that lined the wall. I stared—no, glared—at the offending display.
There, in vivid orange, was the admonition to “Practice Random Acts of Kindness.”
My first response was to consider a random act of my own. But that would be vandalism, not the kind of lesson I hope to impart to the rising generation. If I were going to fight, I’d have to do it with words.
The movement to practice random acts of kindness began as a message scrawled on a placemat. Then, in 1993, there was a book entitled (what else?) Random Acts of Kindness—sort of an everybody-gets-to-write-something kind of publication. Then came the popularization of the phrase.
What mass appeal! Ann Landers espouses it; bumper stickers on thousands of cars promote it; I’ve even seen a big billboard that trumpets the philosophy. And here it was on the wall at my son’s school, right next to “Jesus loves us.” But I’m having none of it.
In the first place, those who suggest this practice cannot know what they’re asking. I suppose that most are guilty of nothing more than lazy thinking: They want something nice to happen to somebody sometime.
Even one of the book’s creators admits that she is not altogether happy with the idea of using the word “random.” There’s something wrong with it; she’s taken to calling it the “R word.” But she didn’t have the time to come up with another word—and besides, it was euphonic. (Maybe what she meant was that it would sell.)
Too late; whether she likes it or not, words can take on a life of their own.
And random means random. My unabridged and certainly non-random Random House Dictionary defines the word as “without definite aim, reason, or pattern.” There’s no reason, then, why we shouldn’t treat Polly Klass’s killer to a night on the town, a good steak, and his freedom; random would certainly include him. Why shouldn’t we reward drug pushers with college scholarships? Or better yet, bring them home for a nice chat so they can strike up a friendship with the kids?
Any society that finds randomly rewarding others desirable is in real trouble. It is made up of the same sophists who sport T-shirts that read: “S—t Happens.”
Sure it does. But so does grace. And so do mercy, understanding, and—if we’re lucky—wisdom.
The idea that practicing random acts of kindness is fitting presupposes that we have neither the intelligence nor the right to encourage, reward, or celebrate those who deserve or need our aid. The flip side, of course, is that we also should not use our powers of discrimination to shun bad people, or, at the very least, look long and hard before aiding them (barring rescue from physical peril).
That would mean that we would be judging others, and who are we to sit in judgment? Doesn’t the Bible say to judge not, lest we be judged? This judgment thing is scary. After all, it’s possible we’ll make mistakes. We might not always be able to tell a good thing from a bad thing, or a good person from a bad one.
It is true that sometimes we’re stupid, flawed, uninformed, and morally stunted; we do make bad decisions. However, our human condition should be regarded as a privilege, not an excuse. We should do what people have always done: Make the best decisions and choose the best courses under what T.S. Eliot called “conditions that seem unpropitious.”
The idea that we ought to leave our decisions to randomness is a sign that we’re in trouble. The inability to judge, to decide, highlights the absence of shared goals and values. Our eyes are no longer on the prize—any prize. In fact, there no longer is a prize; we now believe there probably never was one. There is only the ongoing process of day-to-day living. At best, we can hope only to survive for a time —and then we die. There is nothing outside the self; there is no reason beyond the will. Decadence, writes C.E.M. Joad, is the loss of an object. Many of us now have no object, no objective. We hold nothing as an absolute, a criterion.
In such circumstances, randomness makes sense. The reasoning runs something like this: “Bad things happen to me; good things, too, but rarely. I don’t deserve bad things, but I can’t stop them from happening. My own life is so far out of my own control that there is no purpose in my attempt to change it or assert any direction. I am a victim of random occurrences, and so is everyone else. Random acts of kindness are the only goods left to me and those with whom I share my life.”
If we choose, we can give up all control—but why would we want to? As bystanders, will we permit acts of brutality? Would I allow my children to suffer a random fate if I could—by my own actions —prevent it? What kind of parent would? “Oh, Junior’s out crawling in the street again. He might get hit. He might not. It’s real random out there.” Life means action, including the action of thought, which is specific, not random.
That leaves us with kindness, something intrinsically worth seeking. The word means the state or quality of exhibiting goodness, benevolence, showing consideration, affection, or love. Surely, there’s no problem with that. Except that I’ve noted a shift in its meaning, away from the dictionary definition and toward something that’s synonymous with “nice.”
Goodness, however, is not a passing affect; it’s bone-deep. We all know someone who, even when all of his faults are acknowledged, comes out way on top. Such a person gives us something (an objective, a standard) to which we might aspire. True kindness (not simply “niceness”) and goodness make it possible for us to reclaim a firm foundation.
The idea that a religion or philosophy is valuable does not come from a random source, but from someone or something separate and distinct. It comes not from within but from without. Somebody does something to us. Somebody good uses all the powers at his command to make a difference in our lives. And we feel, see, taste, and recognize the difference. We know that it works because we have been changed, and we have the power to change others.
Instead of the mindless axiom to “Practice Random Acts of Kindness,” we should—like those strong and principled people who have changed our lives — practice calculated acts of goodness. Who needs help? What kind of help can we offer? Such a reckoning does not preclude spontaneous acts, if those actions are in accord with our nature. If we are generous, then we will also be so on the spur of the moment.
But we must understand what we’re about. Demosthenes speaks to us still: “In God’s name, I beg of you to think.” Does somebody need immediate assistance? Shall I give it, even if the risks are great? What about the bag lady at the lunch counter? Can I pick up the tab secretly? What about letting the guy exiting from the store parking lot into my lane of traffic? He needs help, but is it safe? Am I likely to cause an accident? Is my proposed act of generosity to my kids going to be good for them or will it let them off the hook for something they need to learn in order to be responsible adults? What message am I sending them?
Ideas have consequences, Richard Weaver tells us. And I foresee a dire one headed our way. It’s bad enough to find a book entitled Random Acts of Kindness, but now there’s a kids’ version, and National Random Acts of Kindness Days and Weeks, and teachers’ guides to facilitate students’ thinking about the concept, and websites by the handful.
It’s not “just a word.” Our children will be ill served if their teachers don’t know the difference between random and specific, between safe and dangerous, between good and bad. In the classical tradition, the ends of education are wisdom and virtue. We are to cultivate reason, right reason, and not only in our children: We owe this to each other, to be both specific and good.
Our watchword should be Christ’s admonition in Matthew 10:16: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” That is anything but arbitrary.
And there is the belief that we Christians espouse: Jesus died for my sins.
That was an act of supreme kindness, but it sure wasn’t random.
Leave a Reply