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From The Morning Call

February 18, 2007

Giving people hugs does no harm

Renee A. James

After you read the following, please tell me: Is this the 21st century equivalent of a ''smiley face'' button or something more? I'm leaning toward the latter.

About two and half years ago, a man in Sydney, Australia, started a movement that has become something of an Internet and real world phenomenon. My son Brendan introduced me to Juan Mann, who introduced the concept of free hugs to anyone.

Mr. Mann proposed to cheer up people who looked sad or somber and thought with a hug. Standing on the street, holding up his hand-written ''Free Hugs'' sign, he got his share of odd looks from passers-by. But as it became clear he wasn't a lunatic, just someone eager to share a drop of human kindness, people approached him. Women and men, young or old, took him up on his offer for hugs. Everyone walked away with a smile.

At one point, the government intervened — of course — and required Juan to carry something like $25 million in liability insurance if he planned to continue to proffer public hugs. But he fought city hall and collected some 10,000 signatures from people who agreed that his giving out hugs was not a public nuisance and didn't place them in imminent danger. The police backed off. Videos of Juan offering hugs in Sydney have had more than 10 million views on You Tube in the past six months.

This lovely little gesture of kindness may never have left the land down under, or touched people everywhere if not for the Internet. I tried to count exactly how many cities have held ''free hugs'' days to spread Juan's message but I gave up. It's been duplicated all over the world, on nearly every continent, with the same results: Smiling people on both sides of the hug, feeling just a little better about the world and themselves.

In a similar, although less tactile, vein, we have the ''Do No Harm'' movement that began as a simple idea shared by two men, Clyde Grossman of California, and C.C. Keiser right here in Pennsylvania. After sending some thoughts back and forth via the Internet, these men developed a concept that has been met with almost as much suspicion as Juan Mann's hugs. People view their ''Do No Harm'' movement and their bumper stickers with skepticism, believing they must represent a religious or political organization looking for donations. But the mission is no more than what it appears — a call for us to behave more kindly toward each other.

Although this concept is found in most religions or belief systems the world over, the rules on the website state: ''There is nothing special that one must believe. There is nothing special that you must do or not do. But…do no harm.'' Their home page states that this is an effort to ''decrease the nastiness of the world and increase the kindness.'' I'm for that. But just like the public who walked past Juan Mann's empty outstretched arms, people seem uncomfortable: Could this really be as simple as do no harm?

These examples of individuals encouraging kindness and good will are more than a pop culture icon. They're much more than a cute pin clipped to our lapels; they feel more personal. Watching the Juan Mann disciples around the world illustrated two things for me: We're all a little different from each other; and we're all very much alike. Despite the physical and cultural differences that are obvious between people from various corners of the globe, their initial reactions were identical. The resulting feelings expressed by those who accepted the hugs looked identical, too.

And while we have to literally do no harm to actually effect change, I admit I'd feel more positive about how to spend the rest of my day if I drove behind a car displaying a ''Do No Harm'' bumper sticker. Just as I'd feel pretty good after accepting a hug from someone who only wanted me to feel better. It all comes down to the same thing, right? One more person trying to live more kindly, even for just one day. One more person feeling not so alone, for just one day. And all any of us have is today, really, to hug someone, to do the right thing, to do no harm.

Renée A. James lives in Allentown. Her email address is and her blog is

''It all comes down to the same thing, right?

One more person trying to live more kindly, even for just one day.''


Copyright © 2007, The Morning Call




Anita Creamer: A bold step toward the gentle side

By Anita Creamer - Bee Columnist

Published 12:00 am PST Wednesday, December 13, 2006

After Clyde Grossman put the bumper sticker on his car, his wife noticed that he began driving more considerately.

Well, of course.

It would set a really sorry example for him to honk and rage his way down the highway with "Do No Harm" prominently displayed on his car's back bumper.

"I know. I know," says Grossman, 59, a video game industry agent and former Bay Area computer programmer who now lives in the Little Pocket.

And so a grass-roots social movement slowly takes shape.

There's no established association at work behind the Do No Harm bumper sticker and Web site, There's no nonprofit group, no religion, no philosophical consortium.

There's only Grossman and a Pennsylvania man named Chuck Keiser. They're Internet pen pals, if you want to think of it that way: They struck up an e-mail correspondence some time back after getting to know each other through Internet discussions.

Then Keiser e-mailed Grossman the draft of an essay outlining his thoughts on how the world would be a better place if we all learned to tread a bit more lightly and consider the impact of our actions more seriously.

"I was so taken by the simple phrase he used, 'Do no harm,' " says Grossman. "I can get philosophical about it, but it's so simple. It carries a message a child can understand."

So he edited and refined Keiser's essay, and he decided a few more people needed to think about doing no harm, too.

Their site, containing Keiser's essay and Grossman's reflections, has received about 8,000 hits since being launched in June.

It's a gentle, nonjudgmental reminder that whatever we do ripples out into the world around us, affecting other people.

"Everyone sees 'Do No Harm' and understands it differently," says Grossman. "Not only are we comfortable with that, we want people to reflect on that and live it in a way that's comfortable to them. We're not trying to impose some sort of guidelines.

"People know what pain and suffering are, directly and personally. We're saying, 'You're a human being, so you can imagine someone else's pain and suffering, too.'

"The next step's simple, to think about your actions in a way that minimizes the suffering you bring into the world."

Needless to say, some people just don't get it.

Grossman discovered that after he printed up the bumper stickers and began trying to hand them out.

"It's not like I stop people on the street," he says. "But every once in a while, somebody catches my eye, and I might offer the bumper sticker to them. Or in a parking lot, somebody might remark about the bumper sticker."

At first, he says, people tend to be hesitant, concerned that he's affiliated with a particular religious group or promoting a political agenda of some sort.

This, even though in terms of religion, the message is fairly universal -- and in terms of politics, it's in extremely short supply.

"We're not asking for money or for people to sign anything," he says. "There's no list of dos and don'ts. And we don't pressure people.

"The saddest thing to me is that some people are afraid of taking a stand even on something as non-threatening as 'Do No Harm.' "

It's possible they like doing harm.

Alternatively, it's possible they're just too distracted by the world around them to focus on a statement that's so quiet and subtle, so straightforward and undemanding and humble.

Or maybe they think it's a trick, this idea of living mindfully and compassionately.

"We're just asking people to pause and consider their actions," says Grossman. "And to consider the effect their actions will have on the world."

That's all. But that's a lot.

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