Pay It Forward

Pay it forward movie poster

Congratulations Joe Parker

There was a front page story in the Herald-Sun on Sunday about Joe Parker, a retired school system employee who is the President of the Durham Civitan Club. Joe has been elected to a three year term to serve at the international leadership level of Civitan first as President Elect, then President and finally as immediate Past President. I don’t know much about Civitan but I’ve been a Rotarian for many years and know that the international leadership of both organizations requires a great commitment and this position is both a great honor and a great responsibility.

For the kids in the audience Rotary and Civitan are civic clubs that undertake both local and international projects through their charitable foundations, volunteering and fund raising. Rotary’s big deal for the last few years has been to wipe out polio in partnership with others including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Again for you kids, few things were more feared by the generation growing up after The Big One, World War II than polio; maybe only nuclear annihilation by the Soviet Union.

An Ancient Idea and New Expressions

Congratulations Joe, we celebrate your service and the honor it brings the city but what really caught my interest in the article was a note that this year’s Civitan theme was “pay it forward.” It turns out that concept has ancient roots in philosophy, law and literature going back to the ancient Greeks. It is associated with names as diverse as Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Woody Hayes and Robert Heinlein.

My first exposure to the idea was later. In 2000, Catherine Ryan Hyde‘s novel Pay It Forward was published and adapted into a Warner Brothers film, Pay It Forward. In Ryan Hyde’s book and movie it is described as an obligation to do three good deeds for others in repayment of a good deed that one receives.   Haley Joel Osment plays a struggling young boy and Kevin Spacey his teacher. As part of an assignment Osment’s character outlines an idea so simple that it could actually change the world. Eventually he becomes a martyr trying to live up to the ideal.

Liberty Mutual is running some TV commercials now that use the idea. We see a woman pull someone back from stepping into moving traffic which inspires him to pick up a doll fallen from a baby carriage which inspires the mom to….you get it.  Certainly a worthy expression of the idea and more of it would make the world more pleasant.  But let’s think bigger.

Durham has a lot of needs.

Kids need tutoring, playgrounds need building, shut-ins need meals, scouts need leaders and hundreds of causes need money. Suppose every one of our citizens…or just half…committed to three things they could do to pay their good fortune forward. The energy generated would be enormous.

Pay It Forward can be our social currency.  In Durham we are fortunate that we have civic clubs like Rotary and Civitan, as well as churches and hundreds of charities and government agencies that need help. It also has hundreds of underpaid and overworked teachers who do nothing but give of themselves but understand fully why virtue is its own reward.  Need some ideas for how you can pay it forward? Two good places to start are at DurhamCares or The Volunteer Center of Durham.