Paying it Forward

Freddy’s mother asked him to walk to the store to get some sugar for a cake she was making for his younger sister’s birthday.  It was an incredibly hot day, and Freddy was struggling with the long walk home.  He saw a woman sweeping her walk, and he asked if he could have a glass of water.  She asked him to come into her kitchen and instead of water, she gave him a glass of milk and a cookie.  Freddy was very thankful for her kindness, but didn’t know how he could pay her.  He didn’t need to worry.  Sensing Freddy’s concern, the woman said:  “You don’t owe me anything.  My mother always told me you should never charge for kindness.”

Twenty-five years later, Freddy was now Dr. Fred, a renowned physician.  He was called in on cases that other doctors couldn’t treat.  One case had him particularly stumped.  She had been in the hospital for weeks.  Finally, Dr. Fred determined the cause of her problem, and she was on the way to recovery.  What should have been good news to the woman was met with a sense of gloom.  “I’ll never be able to pay the bill for my treatment,” she said.  Dr. Fred could see that she was deeply troubled.

As he walked to the family waiting room to tell her the good news, his joy was tamped down by the woman’s fears of paying for her care.  When he met her family, he was delighted to see that someone had given her daughter a glass of milk and a cookie.  The joy of the family lifted his spirits, as he left to attend to another patient.

Two days later, the woman was discharged.  When she went to the billing office, she was surprised to find that she owed nothing.  The billing clerk handed her the billing statement.  On it was a note saying:  “Paid in full with a glass of milk and a cookie.”

When Dr. Fred saw his patient’s daughter with the milk and cookie, he was reminded of the act of kindness extended to him 25 years ago.  His act of seeing that his patient’s medical debt was taken care of was what is called, paying it forward.  The concept of paying it forward is that you repay kindness, not to those who you extended you kindness, but to another.  While we associate the concept with the 1999 movie, Paying it Forward, the concept is as old as ancient Greece.

Those who believe in paying it forward are what Adam Grant would call Givers in his book, “Give and Take.”  This is in contrast to Matchers, who extend kindness and then say:  “You owe me” or to Takers who never even worry about repaying for kindness extended to them.

Paying it forward tends to have a multiplier effect.  You can only imagine that Dr. Fred’s patient will extend the kindness given to her many times in the future.  Paying it forward brings such joy to the giver that they look for additional opportunities to share kindness with others.

As we go through these challenging times, the concept of paying it forward has special meaning.  Now is a time when we can reflect back on the kindness that has been extended to us in the past and perhaps spread that kindness to others.  Social distancing can be practiced at the same time as social generosity.

At a time when negotiated deals seem to have become the only way to get anything done, the concept of paying it forward seems naïve.  But what might our society look like if all of us believed in the concept of paying it forward?  How might we replace the concept of “You owe me” with one of spreading kindness to others?

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Just imagine what our lives would be like if we were on a continual search for opportunities to pay it forward.


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