PAYING IT FORWARD: AN ANCIENT PRACTICE GIVEN A FRESH MEANING
It is a nice day, the sun is out, birds are high up in the sky, crickets are chirping and there is a cool breeze. The King rides out to survey his lands, he halts his stallion at the sight of an old man who, on his knees, is planting a sapling of an olive tree. “Baba”, laughs the King mockingly, “how silly of you to do this, by the time this tree bears fruit, you will be dead for many years”. “I know my King”, replies the man, “but what would have happened if everybody before me would have thought like you?”
This is an old Afghan story for children. Similar variations exist in the region and beyond.
There is also an Arab proverb that conveys the same message, “Before us they planted, and now we eat what they have planted. We too must plant, so that those after us will likewise eat.” Novelist Robert Louis Stevenson puts it this way: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant”.
It is in line with this philosophy that Members of the National Assembly in Kenya which passed a motion seeking to compel the government to introduce compulsory tree planting in learning institutions.
These and similar other initiatives are commonly observed by indigenous peoples.
Thus, philosopher Angela Roothaan extensively reports that forest dwellers who plant trees that will be benefit their descendants and those of Inuit who protect animals for the same reason. They feel guided in doing so by their belief systems by their “philosophical views of the world”.
An initiative by the World Economic Forum has as its goal to plant, conserving, restoring, and growing 1 trillion trees by 2030 worldwide; the project will heavily rely upon the knowledge, skills, and collaboration by First Nation peoples.
Here, ‘paying it forward’ is tentatively described as ‘the process of somebody doing something good for another without having the intention to have the favour returned or being “paid back”, but instead with the expectation that the recipients pass it on to another person’. The original benefactor does not seek to gain from the good deed. It stands in opposition to such notions as interchange, mutuality, or trade-off, or simple reciprocity.
This process of ‘paying forward’ is therefore critical as, without exaggeration, the future of humankind depends on it. No deep insight is needed to see that what happens now and happened before us, influences the lives of everybody and everything that are present and that will come after us.
‘Paying it forward’ is not a new way of behaving for civilization, otherwise the world would have ceased exist a long time ago. Gleaning, the activity to pick-up the leftovers after the harvest has completed is a much older practice of ‘pay it forward’. The custom is now coming back in many countries. Originally considered as something done for poor people, it is realised that it promotes a sense of community, charity, and reduces waste.
The practice of caffè sospeso or ‘suspended coffee’ builds on the Neapolitan tradition, which was popular during the Second World War, has found a revival during these hard-economic times in the country. Patrons buy two or more cups of coffee, consume only one and leave the remaining to those who may come after them.
From Naples, the initiative enjoys a knock-on effect throughout Italy and around the world to cafés as far-out as in Brazil and Sweden. In some places, this form of gentleness now includes ‘suspended’ pizzas, sandwiches, and books.
There are plenty of similar little gestures of ‘kindness’ that have a ripple effect, such as pay the toll of the driver behind you; shovel your neighbour’s sidewalk after a snowstorm; call or visit an older family member; bake cookies for a neighbour; give an extra-large tip. These guiding principles could be added onto endlessly. Thus, ‘plogging’ has become a household word among joggers: they pick up trash while jogging.
Paying the wrong things forward – ‘adverse childhood experience’ or ACE
A 59-year-old man confessed to having abused a ten-year-old girl for over a long period. He was considered a “pillar in the community” and went into politics to “uphold the historical values that make for strong families and well-knit communities”. The victim was told that this was, “what God wanted and [that it would] prepare her to be a good wife.”
Ample evidence shows that this form of ‘toxic’ or ‘adverse childhood experience’ or ACE, often results in long-lasting harm and can be handed over from generation to generation. The damaging effects of ACEs on children’s well-being are restricted to their childhood but also have their effect later in life.
There are seven ACEs: psychological; physical; sexual abuse; violence against mother; living with household members who are substance abusers, in poor mental health; suicidal, or have been ever imprisoned.
Individuals who had experienced four or more categories of adverse childhood exposure, contrasted to those who had experienced none, showed increased health risks for drug abuse, alcoholism, smoking, depression, suicide attempts, multiple sexual partners, sexually transmitted diseases, physical inactivity and obesity. There is also a relationship between ACEs and adult disorders including heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease and seen as major causes of early death.
Exposure to violence around the schools leads to a deterioration in the educational performance of the students. Each assassination within 25 meters from schools, sees a reduction in test scores, causes skipping classes, and drop out and these effects last for over six months. Boys, more so than girls, who experience violence lose their interest in pursuing their education.
In the Netherlands:
Looking through a one-way screen, the fourteen-year old boy watches a group of kindergarten children at play. He has been invited to the session, as he is known for bullying his classmates and his overall rough behaviour. He looks more closely when one of the children pulls a chair from under a girl, who starts to scream. The teacher quietly talks to the boy and tells him to put the chair back and apologise, which he does. Problem solved. The teenager behind the screen exclaims, “Jeez, I didn’t know that that would work, I would have whacked the kid”.
A beautiful initiative to break the ongoing spiral of misery is taken by a group of ‘grandmothers’. Here, it is estimated that one in four persons suffers from depression and anxiety. However, there are only twelve psychiatrists in the country with a population of some 14 million. The ‘grandmothers’, experienced women with a kind heart, offer six face-to-face sessions on the benches outside the psychiatric clinics. The results show a dramatic drop in people, among whom many young persons, who complained of depression, diabetes, hypertensions, or suicidal thoughts.
Generosity to strangers is certainly not a unique experience a 2018 Gallup poll looked at expressions of generosity in some 140 countries, having interviewed over 150,000 people above the age of 15. The outcomes are imposing – 1.4 billion people donated money, 1 billion volunteered their time, and 2.2 billion helped a stranger in need. In fact, on average, more than four in 10 persons worldwide said that they had helped a person they did not know.
Anonymous donor to anonymous recipient
Paying it forward comes, potentially, with many forms of reward. On one side of the scale, are those acts of kindness that are public, both giver and receiver are known to each other. They tend to be self-affirming or self-aggrandising and may result in such desirable gains as an enhanced reputation and social status: grateful beneficiaries, heightened esteem in neighbourhood or at work, community recognition of one’s contributions.
One’s glory may stay for generations to come, as is often the case with charitable organisations, monuments, universities, fellowships, or plaques on the walls of hospitals that carry the names of their generous donors. People in need, especially non-grant making NGOs, may, in their perennial struggle for survival, feel forced to accept conditions that run counter to their mission and vision.
Big philanthropic foundations may even impose their outdated priorities for centuries, long after their initiators passed away, or as political scientist Rob Reich argues in his Just Giving: “The dead hand extends from beyond the grave to strangle future generations.” There is truth in the Arab proverb, “A good deed dies when it is spoken about”.
“Secret kindness is the best kind. It doesn’t ask for compliments or attention. It doesn’t want gratitude”
Jessica Wildfire, essayist
Here, the emphasis is on those forms of paying it forward whereby neither the identities of the contributor nor of the target audience are revealed. A further restriction, or rather a sharpening of focus is that ‘forward’ is interpreted in a narrow sense: it seeks to deal with those activities that are meant to benefit future generations, instead of to people who live here and now or are known by the donor.
Paying Forward in this sense entails looking ahead in time with the well-being of yet unborn, unknown persons in mind, all the way to Generations Eta and Theta; it is the purest form of ‘paying it forward’.
People who volunteer or provide services to others selflessly are as a result healthier and happier. They spend fewer days in hospitals, have lower cholesterol levels, lower body indices, are more explorative and keener on learning new skills; volunteers also live longer. It is well documented that those who have been kind to others, not only feel good about it but also extend their gratitude to them, including strangers.
They also tend to be more trustworthy of other people. In the main, “acts of kindness make people feel good about themselves”; they bring about a sense of contentment, of moral elevation. The long-term effects of generous behaviour in children: they are less depressed, score better in the academic domain and as adults enjoy higher incomes and receive more positive performance evaluations.
Moreover, there is now neurological evidence that links generosity to happiness; studies show that donating money to charitable organizations activates the same regions of the brain that respond to monetary rewards or sex.
Against this backdrop, it should not come as a surprise that, when asked -in 2018- about their favourite songs, public servants put The Beatles’ With a little help of my friends high on their lists.
With changes in the climate threatening the lives of most people and those who come after us, the calls for “being kind to nature” or “paying it forward to nature’s future wellbeing” are becoming more common. Therefore, in the summer of 2019, Chief Donny Morris of the Canadian Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug band proposed to preserve and protect some 1.3 million hectares of the Indigenous Protected Area, high in the boreal forest in Ontario, Canada. Says the Chief, “Elders have taught us that if you take care of the land, it “it will be a gift to the world” and, significantly, “it will take care of you”.
Paying it forward may also help to soothe the conscience and lessen the guilt feelings of people who have committed acts of ‘unkindness’ that cannot be undone, are not open to correction or cannot be forgiven by those who were made to suffer. Even such a simple act as having been rude to an unknown child in the street – a child whom one will never see again – cannot be reversed.
It may however be able to lead to one being nicer to young strangers in the future. There are debts, many awful ones among them that cannot be redeemed; they can only be converted by paying them off forward.
Nico van Oudenhoven is the Senior Associate International Child Development Initiatives [ICDI] See: ICDI.nl; Leiden, South Holland, Netherlands
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