Pay it forward: A charming idea for our hard times?

The power of three...to do good!

The power of three...to do good!

Just imagine…
You do a favour that really helps someone, and tell him/her not to pay it back…
Instead, you ask that it be paid FORWARD to three other people who, in turn, must each pay it forward to three more…and so on.

Impossible? Well, not quite – if you believe (as I do) in the essential goodness of human beings, no matter what their class, race and other divisive factors are.

This idea is known as ‘Pay it forward’. It is really simple: it asks that a good turn be ‘repaid’ by having it done to others instead. Paying it forward has been around as a concept for more than two millennia, from the time of ancient Greece. It was rediscovered in modern times by Benjamin Franklin and later, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of my favourite essayists.

In his 1841 essay titled ‘Compensation’, Emerson wrote: “In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.”

During the Twentieth Century, science fiction author Robert A Heinlein popularised the concept in his book Between Planets (1951). It formed the central theme of Pay It Forward (2000), a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, which was soon turned into a movie by the same name.

In that story, a thoughtful teacher challenges his seventh grade students with ‘an assignment to save the world’. One perceptive student devices a scheme where one has to carry out three good deeds for others as repayment of a good deed received. Such good deeds should be things that the beneficiaries cannot accomplish on their own.

It was through Pay It Forward the movie, made in 2000 and directed by Mimi Leder, that I first came cross the idea. It’s one of those simple and elegant ideas that packs so much power to change people and the world. Its implementation requires trust, honour and imagination, which most human beings can muster in sufficient quantity when challenged.

Then I realised that, without a conscious plan and not labelling it as such, I was already ‘paying it forward’ myself — and not just to three new people, but many. That was the least I could do for the many breaks, blessings and opportunities I had received in my professional life.

More about that in a minute. First, take a look at the official trailer for Pay it Forward:

And this is how it all started in the movie, with one thoughtful class teacher challenging his seventh grade pupils with ‘an assignment to save the world’:

Here’s an extended, unofficial trailer remixed by a fan using the official trailer, some scenes from the movie and a few interviews with the key stars:

Journalism – especially the industrialised, mainstream version of it – is by definition a highly collaborative business: newspapers, magazines, as well as TV/radio broadcasts are produced by several or many people working together, each playing a specified part.

And because the media are a mirror on our society and our times, the stories we journalists produce just won’t be possible unless our sources share their information, experiences and insights. This is why Bill Moyers, one of the most respected and credible voices in American broadcasting (a land where such professionals are endangered), says: “We journalists are simply beachcombers on the shores of other people’s knowledge, other people’s experience, and other people’s wisdom. We tell their stories.”

During the early years of my career as a science writer and journalist, I was enormously lucky in both respects. I had kind, indulgent, nurturing senior colleagues who showed me the ropes, expecting nothing in return except good stories. And I benefited much from the kindness and thoughtfulness of many accomplished men and women – mostly in the worlds of science, environment and development – who took the time and trouble to talk to me, clarify even basics to a rookie like myself, and allow me to attribute information or quotes them. I was a complete stranger to many of them, yet they cared enough in spite of busy schedules (there were also a few didn’t, but that’s only to be expected).

Then there were opportunities, some competitively earned, others bestowed on me. In those formative years, the opportunities for training, mentoring and other influences sharpened my skills and shaped my worldview. It was easy to grow up angry with the world and seeing conspiracies everywhere; it was much harder to acquire a balanced view of the world and to become a skeptical enquirer without turning into an incurable cynic.

Among those early influences were:
• Working with the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in India, under the late Anil Agarwal and his worthy successor Sunita Narain
• Regional and international training programmes, organised by various UN agencies and other entities such as the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy
• Invaluable support from the International Science Writing Association (ISWA), which leverages far more benefits than its modest resources would indicate at first glance (again, the power of networking!)
• Editorial training and global syndication from Panos, which provided my first outlet to publish internationally through Panos Features (sadly, no more).

Then there was my mentor Sir Arthur C Clarke, who gave me the rare privilege of spending 21 years as his research assistant — a long and unique apprenticeship that enriched me so much.

These and others helped fill gaps in my formal training in science journalism. And such exposure was worth so much more in the days before commercial internet connectivity. There was no Google or YouTube, and early versions of email were just beginning to roll out.

Just do it, and hope others will keep doing it too...

Just do it, and hope others will keep doing it too...

And now it’s my turn to ‘pay it forward’. It’s plain and simple; there’s no grand pledge or plan. No one asked me to sign up to any binding agreement. There is no spiritual or intellectual compulsion. I just do it, because that’s a good thing to do.

This is why, despite pressure of work, I work with young journalists and producers, organising training workshops through TVE Asia Pacific, or readily agreeing to be a resource person for good programmes organised by others. This is also why I mentor a few eager, committed young professionals in my native Sri Lanka and elsewhere in developing Asia. Read here my tribute to one of them, whose death four years ago was hard to bear. And this is why every year I donate a couple of weeks of my time serving on boards of management of two media/development related charities whose vision and mission I share.

This is also why I spent a good part of my recent Easter/New Year holidays putting together a detailed response to a young script writer who is passionately promoting a film project related to climate change. I have never met him in person, and until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of him. A cynical British colleague used to caution me that any crazy nut sitting under a banyan tree can write a letter (or more likely an email these days) claiming to be anything he wasn’t. There’s always that risk. But I’m taking my chances.

Years ago I stopped counting the favours I paid forward, and I no longer even keep track of the people that I give little nudges along the way. Being a secular rationalist with no absolutely religious belief of any kind, I don’t collect brownie points for any ‘next world account’. I just do these little good deeds to make this world a little better place.

If further justification were needed, I cannot say it better than Steven Grellet, a prominent French Quaker missionary who once said (and I quote him for its secular essence): “I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”