Sometimes when we watch unrelenting media coverage of unimaginable brutality, we are left feeling traumatized, and sit back, bewildered, asking ourselves: “what have we become?” Countries that used to lead the way in the concept of ‘service’ now seem to be backpedalling on social progress, bereft of a sense of shared humanity. And if we feel powerless in the face of what appears to be inward-looking, self-serving protectionism, what can we do? How about, paying it forward?
Here’s a task for you: to undertake a random act of kindness towards an individual whom you’ll probably never know or meet. In other words, go out and pay it forward. I had always thought this was a modern phrase, but it turns out it the concept is old and the phrase may have been coined by Lily Hardy Hammond in her 1916 book, In the Garden of Delight. Her expression, ‘pay it forward’, describes the beneficiary of a good deed repaying that deed to others instead of (or perhaps as well as) to the original benefactor, so that acts move in an upward spiral of giving and sharing. I hope we’ve all experienced unexpected kindness at some point: maybe a surprise bunch of flowers, a punnet of loganberries, a book in the post, a clutch of rhubarb on the doorstep, a day out to the spa, or a trip to the theatre. It is instinctive to return a good deed; in fact, we often go out of our way to reciprocate a good turn as soon as we can. But what about making a positive act (and it needn’t be grandiose) that you propel forward, like a delightfully exploding glitter bomb, into the path of someone you don’t know.
It happened to me last week. I went to the ticket dispenser of a pay and display car park to discover it was out of order, but there, stuck to the monitor, was a ticket dated for that day with two hours left on it. A simple and easy pay it forward, and my mystery benefactor had delighted me. A few days later, I was sitting in one of my many favoured cafes when an older man came in. It’s a quiet café at the best of times, but on this Monday morning I was the only customer and the owner had descended to the basement to potter. “Give me a shout if anyone comes in,” he told me. An older man entered with a folded toddler’s push-chair. He looked around the Marie Celeste and asked if anyone was serving. I told him to shout downstairs, that the owner wasn’t far. Up came the owner and they fell into conversation. No, he wasn’t in for coffee, he was going back to Norway and thought that the local café – just round the corner from a Primary School with lots of parents and children coming and going – would be a good place for the pushchair to find a new home. “Spot on,” the owner told him, “I’ll find a someone, and it’ll be just what they’re looking for.” A handshake, good wishes conveyed for the older man’s wife who wasn’t doing too well, and off he went. Paying it forward had been set in motion.
Clearly I spend too much time in cafés, but I know of another in York, (a town that is a magnet for tourists), where the owner collects loyalty card stamps from tourists who come in for coffee, briefly explaining to them that they are contributing to a free cup of coffee for someone else. “What on earth are you doing?” I asked him one day, intrigued by what seemed to be a senseless act. He explained that each day, half an hour before closing, a homeless man would come in for a free cup of coffee. The man hated the idea of the owner giving him charity, and would accept the coffee because it was a legitimate accumulation of passing tourists’ stamps on a loyalty card. I understood. A systematised paying it forward!
Enjoy finding your act of paying it forward today; be watchful, it will appear. And if you eat something from the fridge that belongs to someone else, make sure you pay it back!
‘This is just to say’, by, William Carlos Williams
I have eaten
in the icebox
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold