Do Unto Others...

January 15, 1994|By Wayne Hardin | Wayne Hardin,Staff Writer

On Pulaski Highway, just west of the city incinerator, the rainbow-colored billboard juts up between the Marylander Motel and the Blue Diamond Trucking Co.

It doesn't advertise a product. In a city that last year set a record for homicides, it urges westbound motorists to "Practice Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty."

"We get calls from people asking what it's about," says Donna Lorber, head of the public service department at Penn Advertising, the city's largest billboard company.

Charlotte Kerr, a Columbia acupuncturist, registered nurse and nun, is responsible for the billboard, which has appeared at various locations around the city since August 1992.

What it's about is a growing movement that a proponent calls a "soft revolution" in an increasingly violent world. Its adherents quietly do nice things for people for no particular reason without expecting reward or recognition.

"It's quiet only because the volume of bad news is turned up so loud," says Gavin Whitsett of Evansville, Ind., author of "Guerrilla Kindness," one of four books on the subject. "Nobody called a press conference to announce it's here."

The billboard phrase and a variation, "Commit Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Beauty," are being seen more and more on bumper stickers, posters, T-shirts, mugs, key chains and buttons.

The four books, published last year, propose randomly kind things to do and stories about what others have done. Inge Hester, of the book department at Greetings & Readings in Hillendale, says the store long ago sold out of "Random Acts of Kindness," a compilation of suggestions and stories published in paperback by Conari Press, a -- yes -- California publisher. The book had sales of more than 200,000 last year, and its distributors also are out of copies.

Mr. Whitsett's book, though without the megasales of "Random Acts," is in its second printing. Conari Press also has a "Kids' Random Acts of Kindness" book. And, Anne Herbert, who

started all this with a magazine article 12 years ago, now has her own book out, "Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty," which she co-authored.

"The billboard is part of a great social movement sweeping the country," says Sister Charlotte. "With all the violence, people feel powerless. If we can do one act of kindness, it's like claiming our power. One person can make a difference and together we can make a change."

Sister Charlotte, 46, of Baltimore, a member of the Order of the Sisters of Mercy, got the idea for the billboard, which she calls her "Community Healing Project," after seeing the slogan in the spring of 1992 and being "touched by it." Another nun, Sister Mary Jacque Benner, did the artwork.

People have to reach their own definition of an act of kindness, says Sister Charlotte.

"It can be as simple as giving someone a parking place or just letting someone change lanes in front of you on the highway," she says.

Or planting a tree on your street, or giving an "unbirthday" party to a friend feeling down, or welcoming new neighbors or writing a thank- you note. If such things seem naive in a cynical world, advocates of random kindness swear by them.

The random kindness slogan, playing off words more often connected to violence, isn't new. It originated in 1982 in California when Ms. Herbert, a writer and peace activist, published it in CoEvolution Quarterly, now known as Whole Earth Review. It entered the mainstream in 1991, around the time of the Persian Gulf War, when publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle and Reader's Digest picked up on the idea.

Now, it's here.

Paying the tolls

Patti Cassou, 28, of Laurel, has been a practitioner about two years.

"A friend, Sheila O'Brien, saw a magazine article about it and showed it to me," Ms. Cassou says. "Not long afterward, we were traveling to Connecticut. We came to a tollbooth and I said, 'Let's pay for people.' We gave the toll-taker $5 and said, 'This is for us and the next four cars.' "

Chris Watson, 35, of Towson, who runs a small paving business, also likes to pay other people's tolls.

"One time, I gave a toll-taker $20 and said I'm paying for the cars behind me," Ms. Watson says. "But he wouldn't take the money until he called his boss to see if it was OK."

She says she always has liked to help people but was inspired to do more after reading "Random Acts."

"When I got the book, it made me start thinking about little things I could do," she says.

Her sister, Jamie Watson of Mount Washington, and her best friend, Kelly Chesser of Stoneleigh, share her be-kind philosophy. They have developed a code about their random kindnesses: They don't discuss them.

"We encourage each other to do it and not tell anybody," says Mrs. Chesser, 35. "I try to get my kids [son, 15, and daughters, 1 and 3] to do the same."

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