Pay It Forward

July 3, 2012 § 19 Comments

Just this afternoon, I was watching a movie “Pay It Forward” over at HBO and was truly impressed about the concept it was trying to project. I found out it was released in 2000 (shows how outdated I am about movies) starring Haley Joel Osment as a boy who launches a good-will movement, Helen Hunt as his single mother, and Kevin Spacey as his social-studies teacher.

When someone does you a favor, don’t pay it back… PAY IT FORWARD

The 7th grader (Osment) while attending a class decided to do a project where he would do a favor to 3 people, his mum included. And the recipient of the favors were supposed to forward it to 3 other people, hence pay it forward. The move catches on and became a widespread phenomenon. The movie itself was weak despite strong performances from the leading actors and with a bad ending. How could a hero (the boy) died? Heroes shouldn’t die at end of movies. They should live!.

Back to the concept of “pay it forward”, it is used to describe the concept of asking that a good deed be repaid by having it done for others instead. It was first mooted out in a prizewinning play in ancient Athens dating back to 317BC, by Dyskolos. The concept was rediscovered and described by Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Benjamin Webb dated April 25, 1784:

I do not pretend to give such a Sum; I only lend it to you. When you [...] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.

In 1916, Lily Hardy Hammond wrote, “You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.

An anonymous spokesman for Alcoholics Anonymous said in the Christian Science Monitor in 1944, “You can’t pay anyone back for what has happened to you, so you try to find someone you can pay forward.

The term “pay it forward” was popularized by Robert A. Heinlein in his book Between Planets, published in 1951:

The banker reached into the folds of his gown, pulled out a single credit note. “But eat first — a full belly steadies the judgment. Do me the honor of accepting this as our welcome to the newcomer.” His pride said no; his stomach said YES! Don took it and said, “Uh, thanks! That’s awfully kind of you. I’ll pay it back, first chance.” “Instead, pay it forward to some other brother who needs it.”

Heinlein both preached and practiced this philosophy; now the Heinlein Society, a humanitarian organization founded in his name, does so. Author Spider Robinson made repeated reference to the doctrine, attributing it to his spiritual mentor Heinlein.

The mathematician Paul Erdos heard about a promising math student unable to enroll in Harvard University for financial reasons. Erdos contributed enough to allow the young man to register. Years later, the man offered to return the entire amount to Erdos, but Erdos insisted that the man rather find another student in his situation, and give the money to him.

I was astonished to find out that it started so long ago and I had failed to come across it or even heard of it until this afternoon (I should thank HBO, no?). I must truly read more, I supposed. Such a grand scheme and we could all play a part in it and in return, help people who can then help other people. The thing is this concept must be done deliberately so that the recipients know what they need to do in returning the favors. Fabulous, indeed!

And off I go now, to add an entry to my Life List, namely Pay It Forward.

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