Anne Herbert? Chuck Wall? Ann Landers? George Carlin? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Anyone listening to the news is confronted by disheartening phrases such as “random act of violence” and “ugly act of cruelty”. Yet, these phrases have been creatively reconstructed to produce uplifting suggestions. Here are three versions:
- Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.
- Commit acts of random kindness and senseless beauty.
- Today I will commit one random act of senseless kindness.
Would you please explore the history of these sayings?
Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the July 1985 issue of the influential countercultural journal “Whole Earth Review”. The California-based writer Anne Herbert penned an article titled “Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Anything you think there should be more of, do it randomly. Don’t await a reason. It will make itself be more, senselessly.
Scrawl it on the wall: RANDOM KINDNESS AND SENSELESS ACTS OF BEAUTY
I used to have fantasies of positive vandalism. Breaking into the school and painting a dirty room bright colors overnight. Fixing broken glass in people’s houses while they’re gone. Leaving full meals on tables in the struggling part of town.
QI believes that Anne Herbert deserves credit for this expression. The citation above is listed in the important references “The Quote Verifier” by Ralph Keyes 2 and “The Yale Book of Quotations” edited by Fred R. Shapiro. 3
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1958 “The Observer” newspaper of London published a radio drama appraisal that contained the distinctive phrase “random acts of kindness”. The reviewer was skeptical about whether a recalcitrant prisoner could be reformed by a few gestures of benevolence: 4
. . . such a handful is hardly likely to be cured by a few random acts of kindness . . .
In 1985 Anne Herbert shared with magazine readers the nascent expression:
Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty
In January 1991 the columnist Adair Lara writing in the “The San Francisco Chronicle” of California mentioned an instance of the saying in the form of an entreaty: 5
When you have coddled yourself with poetry, toddies, an exquisite meal and Sahara heat for long enough, you might devote a final five minutes to contemplating a saying that my daughter Morgan’s teacher tacked up in her classroom: “Practice random kindnesses and senseless acts of beauty” – a saying no less appealing for being a trifle incoherent.
During the ensuing months and years, Lara repeatedly discussed the saying in her column. By February 1991 she had identified Herbert as the creator of the phrase and met her for a meal. They discussed the Persian Gulf War, and Herbert told Lara about her self-published book: 6
“Being sad about bombing may not be what your heart is for,” says Anne Herbert, a tall, likable woman I had lunch with the other day. A phrase that caught my fancy a few weeks back, about committing “random kindness and senseless acts of beauty,” was from her book, “Compassion 101.”
In May 1991 Lara revisited the topic and relayed a description of the genesis of the expression. Herbert suggested that she first wrote it down in 1983, i.e., 1991 minus 8: 7
. . . I heard from Anne Herbert, who said she first scribbled those words in the Sausalito Land Company restaurant eight years ago. “I thought it was kind of neat so I was writing it in 24-point type on this place mat. I guess I knew I had something when this guy at the next table looked over and kind of wet his teeth and said, ‘That’s so wonderful!'”
In November 1991 a columnist in a Louisiana newspaper relayed the saying: 8
“Practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty.” I read these words recently and they really affected me. It seems that someone picked up this phrase and it started spreading … by graffiti, by bumper sticker, and now, by me. People are using it as an excuse to do ‘terrible’ things like paying for the cars behind them at toll booths, leaving food anonymously for less fortunate neighbors . . .
In December 1991 a message on the Usenet discussion system included a variant using the word “commit” instead of “practice” in a signature block: 9
“Commit random acts of kindness and senseless beauty.”
In April 1993 “The Sydney Morning Herald” in Australia remarked on the expression: 10
Live a life of random kindnesses and acts of senseless beauty.
Now isn’t that nice. It’s a bumper sticker seen on a red station wagon in Kensington.
In August 1993 a message on the Usenet discussion system included the saying in a signature block; the word “wanton” appeared instead of “senseless”: 11
“Practice Acts of Wanton Kindness and Senseless Beauty”
In December 1993 “People” magazine published a story about Professor Chuck Wall of Bakersfield College in California. Wall heard a radio report using the phrase “random act of senseless violence”: 12
“I just took out the word ‘violence’ and stuck in the word ‘kindness,'” says Wall, 52. “All of a sudden I had a great phrase that turned a negative into a positive.”
When he walked into his classroom later that morning, Wall told his 18 students, ranging in age from 18 to 67, to pick up their pens. Then he directed them to take down the week’s assignment: “Today I will commit one random act of senseless kindness.”
In 1994 the popular advice columnist Ann Landers printed a letter containing the saying, and she recommended the idea: 13
How about it, folks? Let’s band together and commit Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Beauty every chance we get. It’s a terrific idea whose time has come.
In 1997 comedian George Carlin used his curmudgeon persona to evaluate the saying harshly within his book “Brain Droppings”: 14
One of the more embarrassing strains of American thought is the liberal-humanist, touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy, New Age, environmental-friendly pseudo-wisdom that appears on bumper stickers: “Have you hugged your kid today?” “Think Globally, Act Locally,” and most embarrassing, “Practice Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.” Isn’t that precious?
In conclusion, QI believes that Anne Herbert deserves primary credit for this family of sayings. Chuck Wall may have constructed a similar statement without knowing about Herbert’s remark; nevertheless, his credit is subordinate to hers.
(Special thanks to the pioneering researchers Fred R. Shapiro and Ralph Keyes.)
- 1985 July, Whole Earth Review, Number 47, Random kindness senseless acts of beauty by Anne Herbert, Subsection: RK/SAB, Start Page 92, Quote Page 96, Point Foundation, San Francisco. (Academic One File Gale) ↩
- 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page xiii, 176, and 320, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Anne Herbert, Quote Page 356, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1958 December 21, The Observer, Radio: The Hidden Producer by Paul Ferris, Quote Page 11, Column 6, London, Greater London, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1991 January 8, The San Francisco Chronicle, Section: Daily Datebook, Sinking Into a Nice, Soft State of Gloom by Adair Lara, Quote Page E8, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1991 February 19, The San Francisco Chronicle, Section: Daily Datebook, The Last Thing I Saw on CNN by Adair Lara, Quote Page E12, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1991 May 16, The San Francisco Chronicle, Section: Daily Datebook, Random Acts of Senseless Kindness by Adair Lara, Quote Page E10, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1991 November 23, Alexandria Daily Town Talk, Random acts of kindness by Christee Gabour Atwood, Quote Page C1, Column 1, Alexandria, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1991 December 30, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: comp.sys.prime, From: Mustang Sally @usc.edu, Subject: Re: Passing the Torch, (Google Groups Search; Accessed November 23, 2017) link ↩
- 1993 April 16, The Sydney Morning Herald, Article Title: Column 8, Quote Page 1, Column 8, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1993 August 16, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroups: comp.unix.admin, From: Howie Modell howie@warlok, Subject: filter for SunLink DNI? Re: Hook into login possible? (Google Groups Search; Accessed November 23, 2017) link ↩
- 1993 December 13, People, Doing Good Works by Susan Reed, Time Inc. (People archive at people.com) link ↩
- 1994 February 23, The Santa Fe New Mexican, Random kindness makes world better place by Ann Landers, Quote Page C8, Column 4, Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1997, Brain Droppings by George Carlin, Section: Volvo Wisdom, Quote Page 252, Hyperion, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩