About 20 years ago, Catherine Ryan Hyde was driving alone at night in a rough area of downtown Los Angeles in her old tattered car. It was the best she could afford, she drove it all the time and relied on the car for every cent of cash she earned.
When she braked at an off-ramp, the engine suddenly died. All the lights went out and the car started to fill with smoke. She jumped out to see two men running towards her, one of them holding a blanket – pushing past her, he yanked open the bonnet : the engine was on fire.
The car could have exploded at any moment, but this total stranger smothered the blaze and saved her car, her livelihood and possibly her life. When the emergency was over she looked up to thank him – but he was gone.
Over the following months she decided that if she couldn’t do anything to repay the man, she would look for others who needed help as much as she did the night her engine burned.
When Catherine did find these opportunities they weren’t very dramatic at first, but meant a lot to strangers in trouble who often asked how they could repay her.
“Don’t pay it back to me,” she said.
“Pay it forward to someone else.”
This incident was a turning point in her life. She wanted to hold on to the idea of sending people into the world owing a favour to a stranger and when she wrote her second novel ‘Pay It Forward’ in 2000 she often had fantasies of people emulating the book :
“There are infinite possiblities for the ways in which this could be done. How many times do we step around a homeless person on the street? Oh dear, we think, that person certainly has a problem. But we let it remain their problem. We would not normally think to stop and make it our own.”
“It’s a new way of thinking; to begin to see beyond our own problems into other people’s lives and figure out if there is some way we can help them.”
She didn’t write the novel expecting to create a social movement, but that’s exactly what happened : the ‘Pay It Forward Foundation’ was established in September 2000, followed by the Warner Brothers movie the same year and the ‘Pay It Forward Movement – Changing the World One Favour at a Time’ has a very active representation in eight countries since 2002.
I have seen the movie three times now and at first I felt let down by the ending. Now I understand it, but I really want you to go and see the film so here’s the story without giving too much away :
Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) is a 12 year old boy who gets an assignment from his new, disfigured Social Studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey) : think of something that will change the world and put it into action.
Trevor’s idea is deceptively simple – do a good deed for three people and in return, ask each of them to ‘pay it forward’ to three more. “So nine people get helped. Then those people have to do twenty-seven … then it sort of spreads out.”
His attempts to put the concept into action at first don’t seem to work out : a drug-addict he befriends cannot mend his ways, but later talks a woman out of jumping off a bridge. A reporter gets wind of his idea and becomes a benefactor as he retraces Trevor’s efforts after his car is destroyed in an accident and he is given a very expensive Jaguar by a rich stranger.
Meanwhile, Trevor is worried about his alcoholic mother Arlene (Helen Hunt), not only because his brutal father (Jon Bon Jovi) might return at any time; he also tries to bring his mother and his new teacher together – they are both emotionally scarred by the past, but eventually their relationship heals some very deep wounds.
In the end though, Trevor pays a high price for helping a classmate fight off some school-bullies.
Just another sentimental Hollywood production?
Not at all : this is one of the few films that has a tangible impact on societies worldwide and highlights an important message : that one person can make a difference, even in this materialistic and often cynical world. It inspires to help without expectation of reward or remuneration – and it works, not only in the movie!
After you’ve seen the film, you stop and think about the meaning of life – and some people take action : The Pay It Forward Movement is the real-life reaction to Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel and their website shows many inspiring stories and media reports from all over the world, not only the USA, Canada and the UK.
The material is also used in many schools and colleges and with all this in mind I have now launched this WeBlog for Pay It Forward South Africa – Changing South Africa One Favour at a Time.
In this country, we have a history of violence and a high crime rate, but for every offense there are 99 acts of kindness – it is my hope that all this benevolence will now be as liberally reported on this website as brutality is in the traditional media.
And why wait to pay it forward until someone helps you out of a predicament? If you think back, I am sure you’ll remember many incidents where other people made life easier for you without expecting due compensation.
Just look where you can assist and start doing favours to others – pay it forward! It doesn’t have to be anything big or dramatic; you’ll be surprised how much goodwill is coming your way if you do, although you don’t expect to be rewarded.