Monday, February 26, 2007

Paying It Forward

Some time ago, there was a silly movie called Pay It Forward. I did not see it, because (a) I am not a huge fan of Hollywood movies, and (b) it sounded a little too 'feel good' for my tastes. The idea behind the script was not a bad one though. The idea is that if someone does you a good turn, repay this by doing someone else a good turn. This evening, I had such an opportunity.

Monday is a tough day for me this semester, as I have a three hours graduate level seminar in the afternoon, on top of my regular classes. I enjoy teaching this class, but it wears me out.

Just after class finished today, my phone rang. It was an ex-student of mine who made a bad graduate school choice and is now working on getting into a more appropriate program. (I am happy to say that I got to say 'I told you so' about his first grad school choice!) We see each other for time to time. He wanted to know whether I wanted to go and grab a bite. Although I was pretty tired, I decided that it might be a nice thing to do.

As I was arriving home after eating, there was an unknown car blocking my drive way. It was quite tricky to get around, but the two guys standing by the car were most apologetic and explained that they had run out of gas. It has happened to me.

On the very first day I lived in this town, I borrowed the chair's truck to run some errands, buy food and do other sundry things. The only condition was that I had to get the truck back in time for him to pick up his son from school. Not a problem, I thought.

As I was returning to the office to bring back the truck, the engine suddenly cut out. I let the truck drift to a halt on the shoulder of the road. I was on a very busy road, the time was getting on and I was generally in a bit of a pickle. Now, I quite handy with things mechanical, however even a complete dolt would have realised that the problem was that the gas gauge read zero. I had run out of gas.

At that point, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do. I could not get out of the drivers side door, due to the traffic, so I climbed out on the passenger side. I had no clue where the nearest gas station might be, so I was going to stand and try and figure what to do next.

By the time I got out of the passenger side door, another truck had pulled up behind me and the guy had got out. "Do you need a boost?" he asked. "No", I replied, "I am out of gas." The guy grinned and said "Oh, that is easy, not a problem." He pulled a gallon gas can out of the back of his truck and gave it to me. When I had put the gas into the truck, I offered to pay him for the gas. "Nope", he said, "Just pay it forward."

In my workshop, I keep a couple of cans of gas. They were there initially to power my lawn mower. Then I learned to keep a supply after it became impossible to find gas anywhere, after the storms of 2005. So, I was able to give these two guys a gallon of gas. Thus, I have now paid that debt, of over a decade ago, forward at long last.

The guys were very grateful. It turned out that they too were in a real pickle. They had quite a distance to go and had no money. My only request to them was that they too pay this debt forward. They readily agreed. I am sure that they will.

I think that the principle of paying things forward (I actually prefer to call it 'passing it on'), is an excellent one. There are too many mean spirited people and actions that fill each day. Paying things forward is a nice exception to this. There is some evidence that principles such as this were vitally important for keeping barter based economies viable. Thus, in addition to being a little way in which we can all make the world a better place, it is also the kind of cooperative principle that makes simple economies work. If you get a chance to pay something forward, please do.

The CP

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