If I hadn’t had anything else on my plate, I would have read Catherine Ryan Hyde’s Pay It Forward straight through. Even so, I pushed some things off and shuffled the schedule around in order to make time for reading.
I had seen the movie a few years ago, but hadn’t been aware until recently that it had been based on a book. Usually the books are better and more satisfying than the movies that are based on them, so I was happy to find a copy of “Pay It Forward” in my local library. After reading it, in the space of about twenty-four hours, I am giving each family member a copy.
It’s true I’m an avid reader and take great pleasure getting lost in a good story, but I don’t usually become quite so emotionally involved in a book that I burst into tears in just the first few pages. This is what happened with Hyde’s novel, and it set the tone for the rest of the story. The writer’s honest and compassionate style of writing is deceptively simple. Her characters are far from extraordinary and can be downright maddening in their very human foibles, but this is precisely what makes them so accessible. For the most part, these are not enviable, heroic people, and they often reflect back to us the worst and most frustrating aspects of ourselves.
Arlene revealed to me what could have become of my own life, at least in one particular aspect: she is an alcoholic, struggling with getting sober. She’ll get a few days or even a few months in, and then it’s all over in one night when life simply gets too tough. And even when she does manage to leave the alcohol behind, she is forced to look herself right in the face, warts and all, whether she wants to or not. What I do remember of the first few years of sobriety was a similarly shaky emotional rollercoaster, accompanied by brutal reality that was often way too real.
And so I was ripped raw by a simple entry from her son’s diary, before Arlene’s story began to unfold. Trevor, who invents the idea of “paying it forward,” compares his mother to a child with a medical condition that leaves him without the ability to feel pain, only Trevor sees that Arlene is like that on the inside. He writes that she knows not to “keep putting her hand on the hot stove,” and yet she keeps doing it anyway — knowing that she is hurting herself, but unable to stop, and unable to really feel the pain.
The title, of course, is taken from a school project that Trevor turns in for his social studies class. Accepting an assignment to come up with an idea that can change the world, Trevor maps out a plan to help three people — really help them, to have a positive, life-altering impact — and then instead of asking those people to pay him back, require instead that they “pay it forward” to another three people, who then each will pay it forward to another three, and so on. The idea is brilliant in its simplicity, and incredibly powerful in action. Assuming that everyone follows through. Trusting another human being with so large a task, especially in today’s cynical, closed-off society, is not small feat in itself, regardless of the results.
Hyde masterfully tracks the starts and stops in the lives of her characters as they reach for, then reject, then reach for again the growth, the happiness, and the real living that are rightfully theirs.
Ultimately, I found this story to be about compassion, about putting aside your ego for one moment, for one beautiful opportunity to be truly present for another human being in need, with absolutely no thought of what you’re going to get in return. Because the whole point is to keep that “compassion in action” moving ever forward, spreading vigilantly across the globe. The miraculous side benefit to these acts of altruism is proving to yourself that regardless of how low and useless you think you might be, you can and do have power to impact the world around you — and that kind of honest self-realization changes you. Your priorities change, your principles shift, and you find that you are not at all the person you once thought you were. You are plugged into something larger than yourself; you belong; you are an active co-creator in the world at large.
Sure, I knew where the book was headed, because even with all of the differences between the text and the screen, I’d seen the movie, and the story is largely the same. Even so, I was astonished to find myself in need of a fresh kleenex every couple of pages as the book drew to a close. The incredible potential for the planet that this book describes has simply rattled me to my core. It’s so simple, really. How easy it would be, through intentional, deliberate action, to change another person’s life for the better. To help someone who is down on his luck to get back on his feet again. To help an at-risk teenager afford an education. To help a struggling family set up a home of their own. To help a single mother find a decent job. To be the gift of friendship in the life of a lonely neighbor. To help an adult learn how to read. To simply show up for someone, especially a complete stranger, and ask, “How can I help?”
We each have that power in our hands, at this very moment. How many such moments have we let slip by, unrealized?