Now and then my husband and I find ourselves wanting to revisit films that linger in memory to refresh if not entirely recreate the inspiration or pleasure they once offered. One on my list as 2018 begins is the 2000 film Pay it Forward. In that story, as many will recall, a disheartened teacher challenges his students to devise and carry out a creative philanthropic project. A twelve-year-old boy takes on the assignment with elfin imagination: Upending the common wisdom of “paying back” what you owe, he sets out to discover what might happen if, instead, one were to pay it forward to someone else. So if someone does you a favor, you might do a similar favor for a third party, moving the original kindness along into widening circles of influence.
The movie’s title has become an established idea and a useful reminder that kindness isn’t simply a matter of scorekeeping and exchange, but more mysterious and fluid. What goes around doesn’t always just “come around,” but may spiral out beyond where we can track it. And not tracking it may be just what we need to be doing—our left hand, as it were, not knowing what the right hand is up to. Leaving results to God. For a season or so after the film came out, notable acts of “paying it forward” were reported in local papers and the term arose in sermons and reflections on Gospel ethics.
A similar wave of public benevolence arose after an anonymous driver at the toll gate of the Oakland Bay Bridge, for no apparent reason, paid the toll for the driver behind him—a stranger who was, of course, quite taken by surprise. It was a “random act of kindness”—another term that made its way onto bumper stickers and into sermons. Those “random acts” reinforced—though this may not have been the original intention—Jesus’ admonishment: “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” The point, of course, is that if we are called to live in the Spirit and according to Jesus’ example, our noticing, our sympathies, our time, energy, and resources need to be directed not so much by established social priorities, bloodlines, or even principles, but by attending to the one to whom, this day, we are called to be a neighbor. Godly kindness is discerning, but also, in an important sense, indiscriminate.
Random acts of kindness don’t come naturally, or often easily. Especially in the season of gift-giving and family gatherings from which we’re just emerging, it’s easy to default to “loving those who love us” with such a flurry of shopping, cooking, travel, talk, picture-taking, game playing and game watching that our care for those who are not kin is relegated to the odd contribution of clothing or the check written in haste on Sunday morning. It’s easy to rest ensconced in the status quo. Of course there are many who quietly volunteer at soup kitchens and shelters, sit with the dying, distribute blankets in the cold season, and work to change unjust policies. Still, I imagine the “random acts” of kindness and anonymous payments forward for most of us come after we’ve attended to our own comfort and joy.
My point here isn’t to admonish; I mostly talk to myself when I’m musing on ethical shortfalls—the rest of you can listen in. But it is to suggest that in the coming year, as homelessness rises (see any reliable source of statistics; the figures are daunting) and as the growing number of uninsured languish without medical care, as climate disasters and their aftermath continue to displace the tens of thousands whose losses extend far beyond the initial trauma of fire or flood, those of us who could be but aren’t yet among their number will have no lack of opportunity to serve the poor. They are always with us. I’ve long thought that when that sentence is read from the pulpit, it should be read with that word italicized; it’s so easy to hear “The poor you have always with you” as oddly dismissive. But it makes much more sense to imagine quite the opposite intent: caring for the poor isn’t even in question! Of course you do that. It should go without saying. Always.
And there are so many ways to do it. I take a very dark view of the political landscape these days. And so I’m driven to new depths to find hope. Ultimately my hope is “built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” But that claim, which I grew up singing, remains an abstraction unless it sends us into the world to be seekers and bearers of hope. I seek it some days by visiting the websites of some of the hundreds of organizations that offer disaster relief, shelter for abuse victims, medical care in remote regions of extreme poverty, legal help for undocumented workers and legal challenges to unjust laws, clean water for rural villages, exposure of exploitive practices in sweatshops, care for the earth, and free tutoring in literacy. So much kindness is being extended without fanfare or pretention, without funding from large corporations or political payback, anonymously, faithfully, and joyfully by the many who have learned, and can remind us all, that the saints who pay it forward, whose days are strewn with random (and not so random) acts of kindness, are, in fact, as Chesterton observed, “the happiest people the earth ever knew.”
I wish us all such happiness. This spring I’ll be doing a little two-weekend workshop on “Poetry and Prayer”—my small part in the varied curriculum of New College, Berkeley. I mention it here because I have come to believe that sharing poetry is one powerful way to pay forward what we receive from those whose words carry a “blaze of light” and bear sparks of the divine energy contained and loosed in the “word that was in the beginning.” I read and teach and write poetry because I have found that sometimes the act of kindness someone most needs is a word—one that offers direction in confusion, one that names pain that hasn’t been acknowledged, one that gives shape to sorrow, one that opens a new path or point of view. We don’t live by bread alone. We need to make and distribute sandwiches, but our acts of kindness, I believe, need to come with conversation, lively and life-giving and leisurely enough for something of infinite value to be exchanged. That exchange can happen in “a New York second,” but it’s more likely to happen when we linger just a little longer on the street corner or by the bedside or over the homework table with a fretful child or over a poem that awakens us into widened awareness. I hope we find more moments of happiness in all those places this year, receiving, as we give what we are able, something we can go forth and offer to someone who doesn’t expect it.