Paying it forward

I was reminded the other day by a friend of mine that service is where we start when we don’t know how to get to where we want to be. If you don’t know how to get there, help someone else to get to where they want to be and watch it snowball (as we say in Canada). Somehow it shifts you into a higher vibration of energy, a more optimistic place. You’ll end up getting the help you need as well.

My childhood was the learning ground for what I know about service. I learned it from my mother and a few key people in my community. I didn’t think about service as ‘service’ when I was a kid. It was just what I did. Helping other people do things made me feel good and gave me an opportunity to get to know them better.

It wasn’t a ‘cool’ thing to do when I was young. I was called ‘little-miss-goody-two-shoes’ at school. I didn’t like the teasing but I guess it didn’t bother me enough to make me stop doing what I was doing. I was sensitive but I was stubborn. In one of my early jobs I was even told by a head-hunter that I was too altruistic. I thought I knew what the term meant but he was using it as though it were an insult. I had to go home and look it up to be sure I hadn’t misunderstood.

My trusty Webster’s dictionary says that it means:

1. unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness
2. Ethics the doctrine that the general welfare of society is the proper goal of an individual’s actions: opposed to egoism

I wouldn’t call myself selfless. I have as much interest in things turning out well for myself as anyone else. However I do believe that if we look after society as a whole, it will be a better place for each member of a community. I don’t remember having to learn that concept as much as I remember learning what it was called after the fact.

I find that helping other people just plain feels good. Perhaps we live in a society where people don’t help one another as much as we could, perhaps because we are living at such a fast pace and feel we don’t have time. One of my friends says that we are all one on the cosmic level anyway, and we have to treat one another that way. She’s serious about this; she doesn’t just pay lip service to it. She’s in a wheelchair and she still finds ways to help people.

Themes come up in my life sometimes and there have been several reminders about service lately, and not just from the friend I mentioned earlier. The other day I met a young immigrant couple when I was out for coffee. Their history was interesting. The man escaped from Iran many years ago and declared himself to the United Nations as a political refugee. He had to leave his family and the life he knew behind, starting over in Canada with no English. He wasn’t looking for sympathy – far from it – he was just responding to our questions about how he came to be here. But his is not the first story of escape I’ve heard in the last little while.

Each story I hear tells of complete strangers who came to the aid of the escapee at some key point in their journey. Granted, there were also plenty of people ready to take advantage of them, but there were also people who made considerable sacrifices out of the goodness of their hearts. Those acts of kindness can make the difference between surviving or being caught and shot.

His wife has only recently arrived in Canada from Turkey. She’s a surgical nurse and is getting her English up to scratch and converting her qualifications, both of which are taking much longer than she had hoped. Her being a new immigrant reminded me of what it felt like for me to arrive in Scotland and only know one person. Admittedly I spoke the language and that made things considerably easier but I had to start from the beginning with networking and making a community for myself. I will always remember the people who made the transition easier for me, just like the people here in Vancouver who gave me a place to stay when I first arrived here seventeen years ago. They were very kind to me and I will be forever grateful.

This evening I was at a friend’s house helping her to pack her life into a van. She has just found herself a job in a new town and is moving this weekend. I had said I would come over and lend her a hand but she was surprised when I actually followed through. The other people she had asked had not. I’ve been in her shoes many times. I know what it feels like to be left in the lurch as well as have generous help and I’m putting back into the pot what I took out many years ago. As I have heard so many times: we don’t always get to help the people who helped us, but we can help someone else instead.

A wonderful film I watched recently coined the term ‘paying it forward’. An eleven year old boy was given a social studies project to come up with an idea that he thought would change the world and make it a better place. This boy decided that he would find three people who really, really needed help but who hadn’t asked for it. They had to need something that he could do for them and that would be a stretch for him to do. It couldn’t be something that would be easy. It had to involve some personal sacrifice. It had to really matter. Then he had to help them out. The only request he would make of them would be that they do the same for another three people. He thought that if people would take his idea seriously and would do it, it would spread around the world.

The idea gave me goosebumps. If we could all do that, I believe it really would change the world. We could all be personal angels. It’s so intimate, so real, so personal, and makes us feel so alive. Doing something because you feel you have to isn’t the right energy. Doing something because it’s the right thing to do and it feels right, that’s what makes a difference in this world.

I’ve been on the receiving end of such generosity and it makes me spontaneously cry, because it touches my heart. We don’t have to do it all the time, or for everyone – just when the spirit moves us. The fringe benefit is that we get back what we put out. But watch out because you never know what form it could take!

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