My mailbox is full of letters about the popular maxim "Practice random acts of senseless kindness" (sometimes "and beauty" is added). Most of them chastise me for suggesting that such acts carry a risk, that they may backfire.
It would be churlish of me not to acknowledge those readers who have themselves committed random acts of kindness, or have been their beneficiaries.
Many simply suggest that smiling at strangers is kindness enough. It often makes people feel good, both the smiler and the smiled at. In a city teeming with strangers, like Los Angeles, one would have to wear a permanent smile. Wouldn't that look silly?
Some note that it is a physiological fact that frowning requires more muscles than smiling. Actually, most of us, especially we older folks, need all the exercise we can get.
"It might not be an act of kindness," writes Judi Detrich, "but I've proved that a smile usually results in a smile back, and gives one a good feeling."
"If people could and would only smile at others in a friendly way," writes Maria T. Campbell of Rosemead, "what a happier world this might be. When out around strangers, if our glances coincide, I have always smiled. Very seldom has my smile not been returned and I believe we both feel uplifted."
Smile and the world smiles with you. Isn't that the saying?
Lawrence Wagner of Van Nuys says he has always tried to be kind and amiable. As a college student, he worked in the Farmers' Market, where he often waited on movie stars.
"I greeted them courteously by name, served them with grace and wished them a good day. Glenn Ford was the most memorable. He was every bit the kind, gracious, self-effacing gentleman when requesting a bottle of sauerkraut juice as when he portrayed kind, honest, humble people in the movies."
Now I wonder why Glenn Ford wanted sauerkraut juice. Does he have a recipe he would be kind enough to share with us?
Surely the most bizarre act of kindness I've heard of is one practiced by my friend Patti Garrity of Manhattan Beach. Garrity, a former flight attendant, has the hardy habit of rising at 5:30 a.m. to take a five-mile, 1 1/2-hour walk along the beach and the strand.
"Along the way are many lovely gardens and borders with succulent plants and flowers, and ravenous snails crossing the walks to the feast," she says.
I will let her tell what she does:
"Since I'm not French or a duck, snails serve no useful purpose except to make a nice pop or crunch when stepped on, and I have decimated the town's snail population by the hundreds this spring, unbeknownst to any but God and a few bug-eyed joggers, dog-walkers and poets. (There's a whole subculture sharing the strand with me before 7 o'clock.) The garden owners maybe never knew they had snails and now never will, unless they identify the splats on their portion of sidewalk. I can't get more random and senseless than this, can I?
"I realize my snail patrol isn't very kind to the snails, but wouldn't you appreciate a random phantom in your garden?"
Garrity has gone right to the heart of her adventures by admitting that the snails probably don't like it and suggesting that I would be grateful if she practiced her devastating patrol in my garden.
In the first place, I don't have a garden. My wife has a garden, and I happen to know she doesn't like snails in it. However, if she squashes them, she doesn't tell me. My hands are clean.
I know Garrity to be a woman of faith, and I am surprised that she can massacre God's little creatures in such a merciless way. I am reminded of what Mrs. Gomez said when her husband dropped a live lobster into a pot of boiling water: "They don't like it, you know."
Meanwhile, my neighbor Ralph Leighton applauds my suggestion that it would be better simply to do no harm than to risk uninvited acts of kindness. "I heard the same from the Dalai Lama," he writes. "He said Buddhism amounts to this: First, do no harm; second, help if you can."
Also I am reminded that the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates said that a physician should make a habit of two things--either to help, or at least to do no harm.
Of course there's no harm in smiling, unless the person smiled at gets the wrong message.
Perhaps Garrity smiles when she crunches a snail. Alas, though, the snail can't smile back.
Garrity is welcome in my wife's garden any time she likes, but perhaps it would be best if she went barefooted.
That popping sound might ruin my day.
* Jack Smith's column is published Mondays.