The Odd Origin of Random Acts of Kindness Day

February 17th is National Random Acts of Kindness Day. Although kindness really needs no excuse, today is the perfect opportunity to do something nice for someone without needing a prompt or a motivation. Just dive into your in-born altruism, and do something for someone else. Give a tip to the security guard in your office building. Find that one friend who loves to start arguments, and have a lengthy debate with him on a topic he’s passionate about. Leave a gift for your mail carrier. There are myriad kind things one can do today. 

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But where did this holiday come from? Its origins, you may find, come from a place that is slightly off-center. 

The holiday comes from the phrase “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty,” which was a good-hearted antonym to the common newsspeak phrase “ransom acts of violence and senseless acts of cruelty.” The phrase was originally written by a woman named Anne Herbert, and was to be an inspirational quote printed on a placemat. She also came up with the gem “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.”

William Anders

William Anders

But who was Anne Herbert, and what inspired her to come up with these phrases encouraging altruism and library sciences? We can trace Anne’s philosophy back to a man named Stewart Brand, a 77-year-old magazine editor who founded a specialty magazine called The Whole Earth Catalog in 1968. The Whole Earth Catalog is well-known amongst counterculture reality hackers and serene peaceniks the world over. Brand’s idea for the Catalog was to bring people together in a holistic philosophy of togetherness by encouraging self-sufficiency, home schooling, ecology, and other practices that shunned stodgy and destructive corporate institutions. He openly encouraged computer hacking and constructions of self-made computer systems as well. 

Articles in the Catalog were – in a pre-internet age – designed to connect like-minded people with one another in an attempt to form a community of people, rather than a government. The Catalog also offered access to mail-order widgets and services (not run by Whole Earth) that would allow for greater independence. There was most certainly an anarchist streak underneath the peaceful words of the Catalog, and some saw it as dangerous or produced by hippie crackpots. Living in geodesic domes with natural heating and reclaimed water? Are you mad?

There were only a few issues printed from 1968 to 1972, but you can still get new printings to this day. 

The Catalog eventually shut its doors, and mutated into several other like-minded publications including a Hacker’s Conference (make your own internet!), the Whole Earth Review, and CoEvolution Quarterly, which is where Anne Herbert worked as an assistant editor in the early 1980s. It was here that she would coin the phrase no so openly used today. 

Random acts of kindness are always encouraged, but never forget that this form of kindness was originally intended to be a form of anarchic rebellion. In a world that is formed by strangulating economic systems, environment-killing corporations, and strict laws of selfishness, being kind can be revolutionary. Being kind can smash the whole damn system to the ground. Being kind, this holiday reminds us, is what the world doesn’t want us to be. But, Anne Herbert and the Whole Earth reminds us, it’s actually who we really are. 

Top Image: New Whole Earth LLC

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.