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.