I believe that paying things forward is more important than paying things back.
In 1988, I experienced the death of my first close relative, my Grandmother. I was 17, and although I had attended a handful of funerals, this was the first in my own, Jewish, tradition. After the service, the coffin was lowered into the grave and the mourners each took a turn putting dirt on the coffin. Our tradition teaches that to bury the dead is one of the greatest acts of kindness, because it cannot be repaid – the deceased can hardly bury you in return. You will not be paid back – you can only pay it forward.
Working from this lesson, I try to perform small acts of kindness and justice in my daily life. Volunteering, charity and helping others are things I try to incorporate into my own life and teach my children. And yet, there is nothing that bothers me more than people saying thank you for these things. ”Thank you” is an obligation, a way of paying things back. And I really, truly, don’t want to be paid back. I want people to pay it forward. I want my goodness to inspire goodness in others.
Our customary way of thinking about acts of kindness is “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine.” At our most altruistic, we say, “If I were in your shoes, you would do the same for me.” But paying things forward takes it a step further. When you’re paying things forward, you do things with the full knowledge that you will never be in the other person’s shoes, and with no hope that someone will ever do the same for you. I believe in paying things forward because I believe that, in some fundamental way, acts of kindness make the world a better place to live in for all of us, even those of us who never receive them directly.
I work in a school, and have about 60 people at work I have to acknowledge each year for the holidays. Four years ago, I decided to forego the usual coffee mugs and bath salts and simply ask each person to identify his or her favorite charity. I make a token donation to each organization, and print up an acknowledgment for each staff member.
This program has become amazingly popular. For the 5 or 10 dollars I spend per person, you would think I gave each one a new car or some other Oprah-worthy gift. But the greatest reward came this last year, when, all of a sudden, members of my staff started making donations to charity in honor of each other and of me. My act of kindness was fine on its own, but now that it has inspired others, I know I have truly paid it forward.
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