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William Talbott is a professor of philosophy at the University of Washington. An earlier version of the story identified him by a previous title, associate professor.
Anonymous acts of kindness catch on
Seattle Times staff reporter
Before Bob Haslam had a chance to thank her, she was gone. In the drive-up lane at a Starbucks in Lynnwood, Haslam reached out for his usual — a nonfat raspberry latte with two Splendas stirred in. But the barista wouldn't take his money.
"She leaned way out and said, 'You're not going to believe this, but the lady ahead of you paid for your latte. She said she wanted to make your day.' " Mary Ann Johnson had a similar experience. She had just finished a salmon pot-pie dinner at Chinook's at Salmon Bay, topping it off with a chocolate sundae.
"When I got ready to go, the waitress told me, 'Your meal's been paid for by another patron. They said it was a random act of kindness.' "
Events like those don't typically make news. There's no Samaritan Index to say whether anonymous good deeds are up 11 percent or down 2 percent from last year, or whether Seattle ranks 7th or 77th in per-capita goodness.
Has this happened to you?
But in countless — and uncounted — ways, gestures like those that touched Haslam and Johnson travel through the community like a good-deed contagion.
"I told my friends about it," said Johnson, "and the first thing they said was they'd like to do something like that. So it spreads."
Doing good unto others isn't a modern invention, but its place in the American consciousness was influenced partly by a couple of occurrences in California.
In 1982, according to popular account, writer and peace activist Anne Herbert scrawled the suggestion, "practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty" on a place mat in a Sausalito restaurant.
Then in 1993, a Bakersfield College professor, Chuck Wall, heard a radio report of "another random act of senseless violence" and urged his human-relations students to perform a "random act of senseless kindness."
Many bumper stickers, coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets later, the notion of doing something good for a stranger circulates under various names — making someone's day, "paying it forward" (from a 2000 movie) — or no particular name at all.
A word about kindness
— Martin Luther King Jr.
"My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness."
— The Dalai Lama
"Goodness is the only investment which never fails."
— Henry David Thoreau
"Kindness gives birth to kindness."
"You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late."
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Source: Random Acts of Kindness Foundation
Consider the young man Mary Jurisich saw handing out bottles of chilled water and juice from a cooler along Burien's Seahurst Beach on a recent sunny day. He didn't have any grand label for what he was doing.
"He just said he worked at Boeing and it was his day off, so he went by Costco and came down with a big box of ice, water and juice." Jurisich, 75, said the refreshment was particularly appreciated by the older residents who frequent the park.
"He ambled all the way down the beach with that big Styrofoam box," she said. "I thought, jeepers! This is wonderful."
Doing something good for a stranger is a refreshing change from the way people usually connect in society, said William Talbott, philosophy professor at the University of Washington.
"In the modern world, we have a lot of relationships that provide reciprocal benefits: I'll scratch your back and you scratch mine ... those sorts of contractual relationships."
Although those relationships are fine — society couldn't function without them — people who do anonymous good deeds show us that we're not limited to self-interested relationships with one another, Talbott said.
"We can say, 'I just want to do something good for you without the expectation of getting anything in return at all.' And what a thrill it is to be on either side of that statement — the giver or the receiver."
Even third parties can experience the benefit. The Starbucks barista and the Chinook's waitress were uplifted merely by being conduits for kindness.
It's the expression of that attitude, not the material benefit, that has the powerful effect, Talbott said. The price of a latte is insignificant compared to the joy of knowing that someone decided to buy it for you.
A few days after Johnson's free dinner at Chinook's, she decided to buy breakfast for a man she regularly sees selling coleus plants and the Real Change newspaper outside the Lake City post office, taking him to nearby Claire's Pantry.
When it was time to go, she was shocked to hear a regular customer, who had just left, had paid for her breakfast and that of the newspaper dealer. "I know there are good people out there, but to have it happen twice in one week was amazing," she said.
The newspaper vendor, who asked that his name not be published, said ordinary generosity is more common than most people might realize. "Some people think this is a dog-eat-dog world, but I've found there are a lot of good people out here," he said. "If not for them, we'd be headed to hell in a handbag."
Sometimes an act of goodness can be triggered by tragedy.
Before the Memorial Day weekend, a couple who dine regularly at Anthony's HomePort in Des Moines spoke to the restaurant manager.
They explained that their son had been killed in Iraq and, in his honor, they offered to pick up the dinner tabs of up to 10 parties that might come into the restaurant who appeared to be military families.
Occasionally, such a bit of generosity can make the news. A front-page Seattle Times story last August told of a 20-year-old Army reservist, recently back from Iraq, who wore his dress green uniform to take his girlfriend out to dinner at Canlis.
By the time the dessert came, other diners and the restaurant owner had paid the couple's bill.
Even encouraging a kind act comes with its own satisfaction.
When Graham Scott of Bellevue died of a heart attack at 48 last year, his family suggested in his obituary that instead of sending flowers, anyone so inspired could perform "a random act of kindness in Graham's memory."
Afterward, Scott's mother, Barbara, said several of her co-workers told her that they would, indeed, perform such an act.
"Who did what and where and when I'll never know," she said. "And of course that's not what's important. It's just nice to know that they would be doing something." Since 1993, the phrase "random acts of kindness" has spawned a nonprofit foundation, several books and the designation of an annual kindness week in February.
Rather than being the exception, good deeds are "often unnoted and invisible as the 'ordinary' efforts of a vast majority," said the late Stephen Jay Gould, essayist and Harvard zoology professor.
On Sept. 11, 2001, as terrorists crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center, Gould was returning from Europe, but his flight was redirected to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Struck by the generosity of Halifax residents who accommodated the unexpected guests, Gould wrote, "Decent multitudes, performing their 10,000 acts of kindness, vastly outnumber the very few depraved people in our midst ... . We have every reason to maintain our faith in human kindness, and our hopes for the triumph of human potential, if only we can learn to harness this wellspring of unstinting goodness in nearly all of us."
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company