Spent

At the beginning of this century, I picked up a book by Catherine Ryan Hyde, Pay it Forward (1999, Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books). They also published a young readers edition. In 2000, Warner Brothers released a film of the same name, starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment. Regardless of how well (or poorly) the movie was received, or that Spacey’s career is currently in a tailspin, the movement behind the book and movie has inspired me for nearly two decades.

In the story, a middle-school boy is given an assignment to make a difference in the world around him. What he does would set off a chain of “random acts of kindness.” The idea of “paying it forward” is embodied by the concept that there is greater merit in continuing the

Many of us, I being no exception, would normally go through life expecting that our acts of charity and compassion would come back to us in the form of some reward, karma, whatever you like to call it. Very often we feel compelled to reciprocate when someone is generous with us. The need to pay it back is our natural impulse, knowing that the person who was so kind surely deserves to be repaid. It is difficult to argue against this notion, what with our consumer culture.

However, the foundation, by way of the original story by Hyde and conveyed through their mission, promotes the idea that when someone performs a kindness for you, you should, instead of paying that person back, pay it forward to the next stranger, and keep it going. I get the impression that the original intent was for these acts of kindness to be toward strangers. But it could certainly apply to someone you know. When someone is generous with us, we should in turn do something kind for the next person, continuing a chain of unselfishness.

Every day I encounter situations involving kindness and cruelty. I work with people who will not help you unless there’s something in it for them. Today I talked with someone who felt like there should be some compensation within our volunteer organization. I understand there are limits to what one can give. We can give our time, offer our skills, donate money, cook meals, tutor, anything that may be needed. But we also need time for ourselves. We must achieve a balance, and that in itself is work for which there is no compensation.

I think it’s a good idea to set aside a little for the purpose of giving to those in need. Traditionally, churches have encouraged their congregations to give 10 percent of their income to finance everything from communion wafers to new suits for the TV preacher. It doesn’t have to be money, in my opinion, but if you can do it, there are many organizations (beyond church) that truly need help. You can also “give” talent, for instance if you are very good with finances, you might donate some of your time helping an organization with their books. (You might actually need to be licensed or something, so maybe look into that.) I have computer skills, and it would be “meet and right” for me to give my time repairing and maintaining systems for a non-profit entity. The possibilities are seemingly endless.

I’ve been mindful of Pay it Forward for so long now that I probably don’t think about it consciously anymore. Could I do more? Sure. It is difficult at times. Not everyone who needs assistance is receptive. I run into it occasionally:

“Would you like some help with that?”

“No! I can do it!”

Yes. It happens. Oftentimes, we are confronted with resistance and bitterness when all we want to do is help. If you run into this, move on. There is no reward for you helping; so, there is no punishment either. Just be careful.

As someone who has accepted payment for doing something nice, I can tell you that it feels much better to know – or assume – that that person will pay it forward. And it doesn’t matter if they don’t. You made the difference. And you will continue to do it, because it makes the world a better place. There will be discouragement, and you may shake your fists at whomever created those wretches. But just keep it going as long as you are able. For as much suffering as you will encounter, there will be comforting and joy by your actions. No one will remember where it came from, and that shouldn’t matter. Perhaps it will come back around, but that’s not why I do it. And even if it did, I’d just pay it forward again.

 

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God, the Devil, and a Literary Agent Walk Into a Bar

After watching a Darren Aronofsky movie I often feel the need to scrub with a loofah, sit in the corner of the room holding my knees to my chest, weeping and rocking back and forth. Requiem for a Dream was one of those, and I came away from it feeling grateful for my ordinary, uneventful existence. (I mean, I’m not a hermit, but, you know.) My suburban drudgery notwithstanding, I find some guilty pleasure in the dark and the bleak. I like the show “Black Mirror” on Netflix, although some of the episodes are not so dark.

Recently, I saw Mother!, starring Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence. I have to say I was prepared going in, having read about the symbolism and allegory. I approached it as a moral play, of sorts. The movie takes place all within the confines of the large, solitary house in the middle of nowhere. Bardem is the husband, with Lawrence as his young wife. A series of misadventures and tragedies befall the couple, and the house, all corollaries of creation, life, sin and much more. At times the imagery was pretty heavy-handed, like the blatant disregard the guests have for the couple’s home. Lawrence’s character is constantly being forced to retreat into her inner sanctum, which is nevertheless violated as well. Over and over again, the mistress is intruded upon, succumbing to bouts unidentified illness only to be remedied by drinking some mysterious sunshine-in-a-glass concoction.

Bardem’s character is not very attentive to his wife, instead turning his attention to his adoring public. His “writings” are cherished by passionate sycophants, who begin to “interpret” them and quickly break off into factions. Allegorical figures with names like “Philanderer” and “Bumbler” enter and leave, returning and reappearing as the scene spirals out of control into madness and chaos. Lawrence’s character is continually mistreated, all the while Bardem and his worshipful yet disturbingly misguided agent (played by Kristen Wiig) float in and out of view. Eventually, Lawrence’s mother earth figure will get her revenge. And it’s not pretty.

Many people hated this film. I think they might have been better prepared if they had read a few works beforehand: Genesis through Deuteronomy and Luke, Paradise Lost, Cosmos, The Divine Comedy, and A Short History of Nearly Everything. To be perfectly honest, I did fine only having read part of the Divine Comedy, and only part of Milton’s magnum opus. You should be okay.

In all seriousness, the film is entirely metaphorical. None of the scenes should be perceived as literal depictions of anything. What starts out as a seemingly innocent visit of passers-by quickly turns into a hideous bacchanal, then a catastrophic breakdown of civilization. The allegorical figures of the Zealot and the Defiler make their appearance. Many, many others soon follow. Chaos ensues, and it gets ugly soon after.

I like dark things. Dark chocolate. Dark beer. Dark roast coffee. And I like the darkness in Aronofsky’s works. I probably won’t watch this one again, however. Not that I didn’t like it. I have only seen Avatar once. Meanwhile, I’ll watch Die Hard anytime. Go figure.

Now to finish reading Frankenstein.

 

You Only Need to Ask

Help.

help

This is one of the most powerful words in the English language. The mere utterance moves people to respond. Shouting it will draw attention, and strangers will spring into action. It inspires us to give. It motivates us to self-sacrifice. The thought that someone needs our help might override our own instincts, for self-preservation, or at least the fear of being hurt or humiliated. And yet, we are often afraid to ask for help, even when we desperately need it. Why, then, are we so willing to offer help and yet not able to request it?

I was shopping for dinner at my favorite market, and I asked the butcher for two things: coarse-ground beef for chili and a cut-up fryer. The young guy had to get his manager because he wasn’t authorized to operate the saw to cut the chicken. I asked him to go ahead and do that for me, if he didn’t mind. He was more than happy to ask, and the manager took care of me without hesitation. All I had to do was ask.

I find myself asking people more and more when I genuinely need help, mainly because I know how helping people brings me joy and makes me feel fulfilled. So I don’t have a problem asking. I don’t take advantage of people. But I know there are things that I would do for someone if it is an inconvenience for that person and especially if it’s a task I enjoy doing or that distracts me from drudgery. On the other hand, I have found great value in saying ‘no’.

‘No’ doesn’t have to be a forceful rejection of someone’s request. I am often asked to do something by a coworker that that person should know how to do, and that is their responsibility in the first place. One of my flaws is that I tend to bend over backward to help people, even when it is an imposition and I should be doing something else. On a rare occasion that I have flat-out denied to do something (I could have been fired), that person has just now started talking to me again after 3 years. I try not to let these things bother me, but averting disappointment is a major motivator for me. I think I am not alone, here.

I hate letting people down, even when I am not at fault and there was no avenue for me to come to the rescue. It is fortunate that my job doesn’t require me to save lives, and that is something I remind co-workers of, that the worst case scenario is that someone will be disappointed, provided no one violates policy or law. At that point, all bets are off.

Asking for help, however, is not as risky as we might imagine it to be. A person can refuse to help, and that is their right. Some people are assholes. But that should not stop us from seeking help when we need it. I learned recently that sometimes you cannot do everything yourself, and you don’t have to be a martyr, trying to take it on all by yourself. But you won’t get help from people by declaring to the crowd, “I need a volunteer!” That moment when everyone steps up simultaneously makes for great cinema, but I’ve never seen it happen in real life. Don’t wait for it to happen magically. Leave that to Disney.

As much as we might think we don’t like being told what to do, most of us will respond to that, at least when it’s a gentle, persuasive appeal. I like the “congratulations! You’ve been chosen to help me…” line. I also used, “good news! We’re going to work together on a project.” You’d be surprised how well a little sarcastic humor is received. Don’t be afraid to be turned down. It’s okay to refuse sometimes. Just don’t be that guy. You know who I’m talking about.

Don’t be surprised when someone offers to help you. Most of us are looking for opportunities to be of some assistance. There’s something ingrained in us that makes us crave it, that satisfaction we get from helping another person. Actually, other creatures don’t seem to share our values. (I think polar bears kill their young or something like that. That’s probably something to do with food supplies and the wilderness, which we don’t run into much in the US.) all that being said, I’m still not sure what most of us are afraid of. I think I’ll make it a new year’s resolution to ask for help more often.