I don’t recall when I first heard the expression “pay it forward” but I know I liked the idea instantly. Part mitzvah, part karma, part what goes around comes around, the concept is inescapably, unyieldingly optimistic.
To believe in the value of doing favors that will eventually be more than repaid through favors to others is to believe in a continuously improving world. Like planting trees in whose shade one will never sit. I love that.
Two years ago, in preparation for a leadership program, I first saw the film Pay It Forward, based on the 1999 book by Catherine Ryan Hyde. It was the foundation for discussions about our responsibility as community leaders to consider the possibility of our own potential and what we might accomplish if we really put our minds to it: what if one idea could change the world?
The book/film’s idea is this: rather than repay a favor someone has done for you, you do something for three other people, something they couldn’t do for themselves. It should be something big, meaningful. Eventually — inevitably, mathematically — important change starts to happen in the world as the sheer preponderance of people’s good deeds accumulates.
The simpler version: offer something, anything, to others if they’ll offer something, anything, to a group of others. Like a karmic chain letter, only without the USPS warnings. It’s a lovely, quiet way to network. A soft-sell community-builder. Perfect for the internet age. The individual investments are small, but the cumulative yield considerable.
Either way, it’s about faith in the future and our fellow humans’ ability to deliver for one another.
Last week “pay it forward” resurfaced for me, via a blogger nearly 4,000 miles away. I was struck again by the universal appeal, salutary enormity and simple elegance of loving gestures to strangers through commitment to an unknown future. As I fantasize about where my journey will take me I ponder anew: what if one idea could change the world?