"Practice Random Acts of Kindness" reads the bumper sticker. Sounds so good, so warm and cozy. But is it the right attitude?
Now what kind of Scrooge would find fault with this philosophy? Well, traditional Judaism, for one, would. Not because, as some uninformed critics would have it, the God of the "Old Testament" is a vengeful, wrathful Creator. Nothing could be further from the truth. Love and kindness are cornerstones of Judaism. Our sages teach us that the world stands on three things: on Torah, on service of God, and on acts of loving kindness (Ethics of Our Fathers, 1:2). Judaism is definitely in favor of kindness! The problem lies in the random nature the bumper sticker alludes to.
Why should our acts of compassion and caring be any more random than the other actions in our life? We wouldn't advocate random acts of spending (except perhaps at a Barney's sale!), or bring that quality of whimsy and serendipity to our workplace. So why treat kindness any less seriously?
The Torah teaches that kindness should be offered in a thoughtful and appropriate way. A trivial example may lie in gift giving. Are you taking into account the wishes of the recipient and what gives him or her pleasure; or is it all about you? This is what I would want. Isn't it nice of me to think of them?
A more significant example may be visiting the sick. Does the patient really want visitors? Are you trying to make yourself feel better by making a hospital visit, or your ill friend? If it's about you, stay home. And whatever you do, don't make it random. There's nothing like an unwanted visitor when you're feeling miserable.
What about friendships? What demands of kindness do they require? It's not always simple. What if you have a friend who constantly wants to talk about her problems? Is listening the kind thing to do? Should you help her find a solution? Or tell her, lovingly of course, that it's time to move on?
If your kindness is random you may wind up doing more harm than good.
Sometimes people need empathy; sometimes they need a kick in the pants. A practitioner of well thought out acts of kindness makes this determination. If your kindness is random you may wind up doing more harm than good.
Someone I know was having a hard time shouldering the financial responsibilities of his family. Promised funds never arrived, bills were left unpaid and tension was mounting. Desperate, he turned to his father who bailed him out with a large loan. Sounds like an act of kindness. And it's clearly not random. But possibly not well planned either. Was it really to this young man's benefit to have his father rush to his assistance? Would it teach him more responsibility in the future? Would it further his growth and deepen his marriage? Perhaps that loan actually hurt his son; perhaps it will inhibit his ability to fully stand up for himself, whatever the consequences.
Our time is limited; there are a finite number of acts of kindness that we can do in one day, in one lifetime. How do we want to approach them?
If a charitable foundation announced that it was giving away its money randomly we'd be shocked and appalled. Why should we treat our kindnesses any differently?
An act of kindness is a precious gift -- with potential to change a life. But only when it's carefully thought out with the particularly needs and sensitivities of the beneficiary in mind; not when it's random.
I'm designing a new bumper sticker: "Practice Strategically Planned and Well-Considered Acts of Kindness." Not so catchy, but ultimately more effective. Anybody want one?