The book, “Pay It Forward,” by Catherine Ryan Hyde was first published in 1999. That was before the viral promotion offered by Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, yet that one book and later a movie sparked a worldwide movement based on a simple premise. Instead of repaying a good deed to those who did you the kindness, “pay it forward” by performing good deeds for others. By doing so, Hyde posited, you can change the world.
I think I saw the movie but I don’t remember reading the book so I recently picked up the 15th anniversary edition published in 2014. Hyde noted in a new introduction how extraordinary it was, given the publishing world’s fickleness, that a market would still exist for one novel out of hundreds of millions that many years after publication. The novel’s central idea had staying power because it was so powerful. While the story she wrote is fiction, its roots are based on her own life experience.
Hyde was living in California, driving a beat-up Datsun. She was heading home through the rundown neighborhood she lived near when she saw smoke starting to come out of one of the vents. This was before cell phones and Hyde noted were it not for the smoke, she’d have stayed locked in her car, hoping help would come. Instead, she got out and saw two male figures barreling towards her. Her fear turned to astonishment when they moved past her, and one popped the car’s hood open from the inside and the other used a blanket and his bare hands to put out the engine fire. By the time the fire department arrived, the fire was out and the two men were gone and Hyde had no way to thank them. They not only saved her car and possibly her life, they transformed it.
After that, Hyde found herself keeping an eye on the side of the road and if she saw someone broken down, she always stopped and helped. She had never done that before. A wannabe writer, Hyde used the experience to form the storyline in which a young boy takes a school assignment to make the world a better place and puts a positive twist on a pyramid scheme — doing good deeds for three people and only asking they “pay it forward” by doing good deeds for three more people and so on.
It’s not unusual to see social media posts about the pay it forward phenomenon today. Sometimes, it’s a report of a tab being picked up by a stranger at a restaurant; more typically it’s someone paying for the coffee of the driver behind them in line, which the recipient promises to pay forward by doing the same. They are small acts of kindness in a world that needs more of them.
So, I was a little taken aback when I saw a post on Facebook dissing that small generosity and proposing that instead of paying for someone’s coffee in the Starbucks line, when that person can clearly afford to buy their own, to help someone in need.
I think the post missed the point of paying it forward.
As Hyde notes, “My idea was to add a new twist, a way of encouraging kindness to catch on… there’s the exponential math — you do something nice for three people, and they do something nice for three more people. Each.”
She means something different than performing individual acts of charity, though the positive impact of personal philanthropy is obvious.
Hyde was banking on the innate generosity of the human spirit. That being on the receiving end of an act of kindness, however small, is so meaningful that it would act as a key to unlock a genuine desire to give the same feeling to someone else. And so on.
“We know it will make things better, not worse, so what more do we need to start?” Hyde asks.
If I can’t get Barbenheimer tickets this weekend, I think I’ll search on demand and re-watch the movie inspired by Hyde’s experience and book. And if I’m ever in the drive-through line and get a nice surprise when I pull up to pay, I promise to pay it forward, threefold. It makes things better not worse and that’s a pretty good place to start.
A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.”