Can we all just pay it forward?


Hearing about “pay it forward” stories makes the world seem very hopeful.  There’s always a moment where you wish you could get in on something like that, where an idea of being nice is somehow ignited with one person and catches fire with many more.  Being nice to somebody from whom you want nothing.  Now, there’s a simple yet profound idea that, if executed correctly, should align you with your religion, philosophy, belief-systems and your moral compass.  It’s a small idea with huge consequences, a kickback payment in the form of joy. And who doesn’t need a little joy?

In the movie, “Pay it Forward,” based on the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, a young boy takes a teacher’s assignment to heart to come up with an idea that could change the world, and to then execute it.  The boy decides to do something nice for three people, thinking they would pass that on and the results would have exponential effects on the happiness of the world.  And in the movie, of course, that very thing does happen.  

In today’s versions of “paying it forward, you mostly hear of the drive-thru dream makers.  There are great examples of this from Starbucks and Chick-fil-A patrons where sometimes hundreds of people will pay for the next person’s coffee or meal.  That’s pretty cool, not only to get your lunch for free, but that you can then be a part of a collaboration to do something good and you can do your part to keep those good vibes rolling.  It’s a win-win for everyone.  And you have to think there must have been at least one person in the line who was grumpy, or shall we say very conscious of their money and of keeping it, somebody who maybe said no but then felt their hearts twinge and joined in.   Anyhow, they made it through a large number of participants, considering these were random strangers haphazardly coming together at an unspecified location doing something nice for each other.  How brilliant!  I just wonder who the person was that stopped the giving train.  Maybe they wandered into a Starbucks for a quick coffee and had no idea what all the commotion was about and panicked.  Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

In the movie, the young boy decides he must do something for his three selectees that is important, something that they couldn’t do on their own.  That’s a tall order and in real life we are people with budgets and time constraints and jobs and so on, people who can barely keep their own tribe happy and healthy without the burden of doing something nice for somebody else.  After all, aren’t we all just responsible for ourselves?  Can’t we just “like” a post or give a well-thought “thumbs up” to show we care?  And why send an actual card when the internet can make one that sings, dances and is free?   And aren’t strangers dangerous anyhow and why can’t people just get better jobs and pay for their own things?  Lots of reasons not to help, I know.  Conversely, social media has given many a forum to share their “pay it forward” experiences with pages and sites dedicated to the cause.  It’s a great way to rally people together for maximum participation in “pay it forward” organized events.  There’s also an entire day dedicated to the cause where everyone is supposed to do a good deed.

Sometimes you can get lost in a movement, though, and wonder if your own contributions really amount to anything.  In reality, you don’t have to have high intentions or expectations for your act of kindness; the most important thing is that you just do something!  It can be as simple as a smile to the elderly man eating alone or striking up a conversation with somebody you normally wouldn’t talk to.  Your instincts guide you to those who need help, and we’ve all had a twinge of guilt when we pass up the opportunity to do something nice, so don’t wait for that perfect moment.  You don’t need to be in the right line or in the right restaurant to partake in the goodness. I remember a very special day when a stranger in the car in front of me paid my toll as I drove to work over the Skyway Bridge.  It was special because it was on my birthday, and I was not having a great year, let alone a great birthday.  The kindness of that stranger snapped me out of my funk on that day, and firmly placed in my head the notion that the kindness of strangers should never be discounted.  It always comes down to the “little things,” anyhow, and that is aptly true when trying to start a chain of kindness.

You could begin with that grumpy neighbor you’ve been avoiding or the standoffish person who never joins in.  Who knows what opportunities lie in your own lives but they are certainly there.  A simple hello can go a long way, especially if that is going to be the only social interaction that person might have that day.  Sometimes the surliest of people warm up easily when shown grace and attention, and sometimes they do not and that’s ok.  It’s the effort you are focusing on, a consistent effort of doing good for others. You’re not concerned with instant gratification or acknowledgement that you’ve now made this person happy.  The unintended consequences that you receive are profound anyhow.  And if that surly person you’ve reached out to is a parent or teacher or caregiver, then you may have helped them be kinder to a child or patient.  And at the very least, perhaps you were able to give a hurting person a reason not to frown.  

Monetary expressions are obviously appreciated and if you have the means, then why not help a hard working person with their gas tab or make somebody’s day with a free cup of coffee.   I love hearing about the guy who passes out $100 bills around Christmas or the cash stashes somebody has placed around various locations throughout the country, just waiting to be found by grateful people.  Giving Challenges are wonderful, where people have the opportunity to use a specified amount of money for the good of as many people as possible.  It’s always nice to see what people would do if given the means to effect change.  And it’s fantastic to hear about the wealthiest people being charitable in ways that touch the lives of millions of people.
But in the end, it’s the day-to-day niceties with people in our immediate surroundings that will get the ball rolling with me and you.   We can all spring
into action at any moment because what it takes is just the presence of another human being.  Let your family, and especially your kids, see you being helpful and kind but don’t let recognition fuel your desire to do better.  The joy comes in knowing you’re helping somebody while having zero expectation for any kind of acknowledgement.  The “pay it forward” bug is contagious, I hope you all catch it today!

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Jodi Schwarzenbach, Pay it forward

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