I can’t tell you how tickled I was when the movie “Pay it Forward” came out in 2000. I was even more pleased, after seeing the movie, to note that it was true to the concept, thereby exposing thousands of other people to the idea.
Why was I so excited about this? Because it was a concept that was dear to my heart, something I tried to practice in the years after therapy, to the extent that I could—being financially marginal, especially after the death of my husband, made it difficult for me to throw money at people without expecting it back, but I found other ways to do it.
Googling the idea one day, I was surprised to learn that it was neither a new concept nor was it particularly original. It was a key element in a 317BC Athenian play, Dyskolos (The Grouch) by a fellow named Menader, and it has shown up in writings by Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was surprised to learn the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein incorporated the concept into many of his books. And although I am not ordinarily a scifi fan, I do like Heinlein so that is most likely where the concept seeped into my own consciousness.
What is paying it forward? Simply stated, it is returning a favour not by paying back the person who did you the initial favour but doing the same (or another) favour for someone else, admonishing him to repay you in the same manner—by paying it forward to another person in need. It is, I think, one of the simplest and least costly means of spreading good will and countering the selfishness of the narcissism that is beginning to overwhelm our society.
I receive many thanks from people for the blog and the Facebook group but the truth is, both are my way of paying forward help given to me by others. One of the great things about paying a kindness forward is that it doesn’t have to be a one-time thing—you can make paying it forward a part of your everyday life. No matter how poor you are, smiles and kind words cost nothing. When you buy that next burger at McDonald’s, just how costly is it to buy a second one and give it to the guy on the corner who doesn’t even have a roof over his head? My father once told me “Courtesy is contagious—spread it around!” You can do that by holding back to let another guy merge into traffic or change lanes, by smiling at people who frown at you, and by small and seemingly insignificant acts like thanking your server for their attention to your order. Paying it forward doesn’t have to be huge or expensive or time-consuming acts, it only has to be kindnesses you have received from others passed on to someone else.
You haven’t received any kindnesses? Then you can be the place to start. If the people around you become accustomed to you having a generous nature, it may inspire them to adopt one as well. Yes, there are narcissists in your life who wouldn’t pay something forward if their lives depended on it, but it is your choice if you assume their wretched visage or turn it around and spread the wealth of good cheer and help to your fellows.
My grandmother once told me that if you look hard enough, you can always find something to compliment someone about. It could be their laugh, or “My, your eyes are really sparkly today!” or “Nice tie!” or just “Glad to see you!”—a painless injection of positivity that motivates many to pass it on.
Selflessness doesn’t have to be painful, it doesn’t have to cost anything. Most of us get a feeling of gratitude when someone does or says something nice to us, but we also just let that feeling drop, even if we have the presence of mind to say “Thank you.” By paying it forward we have the opportunity to act on our gratitude by passing the baton of good feelings on to the next guy and hoping it motivates him to pass it even further.
I really enjoyed seeing a movie that passed on a positive sentiment (even if the ending was disappointingly sad) that demonstrated how that sentiment could spread. Selflessness is a learned quality and if nobody demonstrates selflessness to you, how are you to know what it is or even if it is ok to spread it around? As the child of a deeply self-interested malignant narcissist, it was not until I was nearing the end of therapy that I began to understand such things as “random acts of kindness1” and paying it forward. While I was not intentionally selfish, I had spent my life embattled and in a state of privation: when I went out of my way to help someone, I fully expected—sometimes truly needed—the person to pay me back. It took therapy and a leap of faith to put me in a place where paying it forward became preferable, to me, to having it paid back.
Honesty is important to me, and I would be less than honest if I said this blog or the Facebook group was an entirely selfless endeavour. I get feedback from people all the time and mostly, it is affirming. They may not write with thanks, but to see that something I wrote has had a positive impact on another person’s life is a very powerful affirmation of my belief in paying it forward. Many years ago I was suicidally depressed and despondent and people reached out to me. Most of them gained nothing from helping me except perhaps helping themselves, but they were selfless and attentive and helpful when I had the courage to find my voice. So many people devoting their time and energy to me and my issues with no promise of reward—it was such a vivid contrast to my daily life in which I was a shadow on the wall, unheard unless I mustered up the courage to raise my voice, and then I was minimized and discounted. With these people, my smallest whisper was heard, my voice encouraged, my hurts salved. These people unwittingly saved my life and it is unlikely any of them even realize that.
But how do I repay a debt so large as giving me back my life? By paying it forward, being there for others, providing a safe space for others to speak out, by protecting their privacy. By keeping this blog open and available to anyone who cares to read, thereby creating an oasis of truth and honesty for those struggling with the burden of being a Narcissist’s Child. By making available to the dismissed, victimized, and invalidated the knowledge they need to step out of the F.O.G.2 that has heretofore enshrouded their lives. It’s not an effort engaged in to reap reward but a paying it forward for all of those people who supported me and saved my sanity and my life all those years ago.
And now it is your turn.