Published In The Great North Arrow, February 2022: Pay It Forward

- jim Young

“Dusting is a good example of the futility of trying to put things right. As soon as you dust, the fact of your next dusting has already been established.” - George Carlin

About 20 years ago, a young actor named Haley Joel Osment starred as 12 year old Trevor McKinney in the movie “Pay It Forward”.

As part of a school project Trevor comes up with a plan to help make the world a better place. This project, “Pay It Forward” requires the recipient of a favour, to do a favour for three others.

It works kind of like the chain letters we used to get in the mail before the days of the internet. 

Then, in the 70s, near Christmas, a short lived fad involved a hand delivered variation of this, that involved buying a bottle of booze for someone on the top of a list. Eventually, your name would get to the top of the list and you would receive three bottles of booze as your reward for the one you purchased.

It worked well if you got in on it early, but eventually it would die out. It had to die out. These kinds of schemes are simply not sustainable over a long period of time.

More recently we see versions of “Pay it Forward” taking place in the drive-throughs of coffee shops.

It’s a nice “feel good” concept that is unfortunately flawed.

The guy at the front of the line buys a coffee for the guy behind him. It’s a nice gesture if it ends there. 

But then the cashier tells you that the guy ahead of you paid for your coffee and asks if you want to pay for the coffee for the guy behind you.

Bam. The whole point of “Pay It Forward” has been bastardized.

Now the whole line up is coerced by guilt into passing their gift onto the next guy. At the end of the day the guy at the beginning of the line bought a coffee for the guy at the end of the line and everyone else in between was simply a pawn to pass it along.

I think a “Pay It Forward” gesture should come from the heart without any conditions and be received in the same spirit. Otherwise it’s just barter.

Would it really be selfish of me to break the chain and keep the free coffee for myself? It’s not like I really needed a free coffee or I wouldn’t have been in the line up in the first place. It was just a “feel good” gesture from the guy in front of me. 

Did the guy ahead of me say “I want to buy a coffee for the last guy in the line up?” I don’t think so. He wanted to buy me a coffee and it would be rude of me not to accept it. Thank you very much. How and when I “Pay It Forward” after that, is up to me.

Gift giving has evolved to pretty much the same thing. I buy you a $20 gift for Christmas and you buy me a $20 gift in return. Chances are, at least one of us will have to return our gift because it’s not the right size or colour. Or maybe we just don’t like it. Why don’t we dispense with gift giving all together and just buy something for ourselves?

Explain to your friends that you will buy your own gifts this year and you expect them to do the same. Then, on Christmas morning, you show the other person your gift and say “See what you ‘gave’ me for Christmas this year? Isn’t it nice? Thank you so much!” and they take their turn and do the same thing to show you what you “gave” them. Even the element of excitement and surprise in this reverse type of gift giving has not been lost in the process when you see for the first time what your gift for your friend was.

The best part is, the more friends you have, the more money you can save because you can go through the same routine with them, with the same gift. Or, if you like to get lots of gifts, you can buy yourself a different item for each friend you have. It’s all up to you exactly how much you want to spend without feeling obligated to spend beyond your budget regardless of how many friends you may have. How much stress would just that take out of Christmas?

There is however, one “Pay It Forward” scheme I have heard of that seems to work. You go into a fast-food take out restaurant, pay for your meal and then pay for another to be given to a homeless person that comes in begging for handouts after you’re gone. 

No one is going to ask a homeless person if he wants to pay his meal forward.

- 30 -


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