Several years ago I had a realization. That realization wasn’t sudden, or abrupt, but it was profoundly powerful. It was the realization that we as individuals are fundamentally responsible for our actions and the impact of those actions on the people around us. That realization led me to re-analyze the way I interact with people, and what type of people I choose to surround myself with.
I’ve come to realize that there are effectively two types of people in the world. Those who create their own luck and dismiss adversity/challenges and disappointments as part of the process, and then those who languish in their own bad luck. This latter group seem constantly plagued by bad luck, most of which can be traced back to their life choices and fixation on their own poor condition. The latter seem to always be pointing to others and claiming, “if only I had your luck, your skill, your opportunities, your good lucks, etc.” and who by that same coin refuse to create their own luck and opportunity. These ‘if only’ personalities relish in creating missed opportunities and then pointing to and fixating on them as indicators of why they cannot get ahead or succeed. While this world view isn’t the focus of this post, it is tied directly to an inner decision that goes hand in hand with it. So, keep it in mind as you read.
Pay It Forward
The concept is simple. When you read those three words, you probably immediately think of the movie which offered the ideology significant publicity. Ultimately, however, it’s little more than an extension of the Golden Rule – that is, do onto others as you would have done onto yourself.
It’s a simple approach to life, but one which is surprisingly rare. Oh, don’t get me wrong, you’ll find small examples of good behavior in everyone, but in many ways it has come to be an ideology at odds with our culture. Why help a stranger in a city of millions? It’s part of our nature to wonder, “What’s in it for me?” and of course, “What’s the cost?.” The answers to these questions don’t exactly give the most marketable responses. What’s in it for me? The chance of a better world. The chance to help people. It’s a vague answer, one which is general and initially seems insignificant. You can bring the concept of Karma into it as many do, but even then it’s somewhat nebulous. The truth is that living a life which focuses on paying it forward does pay major dividends. You live a happier, healthier life and ultimately end up surrounding yourself by other people who are sincerely willing to help, for no better reason than that they can, but in truth – that is the easy part of the equation.
The second question is far more challenging: what’s the cost? Most believers in a pay it forward ideology will shrug off the question, usually giving a nebulous answer that implies nothing – that there is no cost. The reality is, that there is a cost – and that cost can potentially be significant. A point I was painfully reminded of last night.
There’s a reason that one of the most widely recognizable adages in our culture is, “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”. It’s not that every good deed is punished, but rather that the sting of getting burned while trying to do a good deed hurts twice as much. It’s not only fundamentally hurtful but carries with it a strong sense of betrayal coupled with anger and those emotions, especially combined are incredibly powerful. So powerful in fact that they can do far more than just causing people to abandon a Pay It Forward approach to life, where they might do little more than revert to apathy and inaction. It can cause a Pay It Backwards approach which leaves people bitter and aggressive and that’s the true danger. It’s also why I started this article talking about how we deal with success and obstacles in our day to day lives.
I mentioned earlier that the reason for this post was an altercation I had last night. Without going into too much depth I came upon a car last night around 9:30PM in a parking lot commonly used by bar goers. I was a bit early and the parking lot was largely empty. I immediately noticed that the car next to mind still had the keys in the door. I faced a dilemma. The keys were not owned by someone I knew and none of my business. They were a stranger’s keys and any theft/damage done would be to a complete stranger, and the direct result of their lack of attention. Yet, if they had been my keys and a stranger noticed them – what would I hope that they might do? Ignore them and leave the car to the next, less scrupulous passer by (Keep in mind that the Phoenix area ranks in the top 10 for Automotive theft)? Or take what action was available to help.
After a moments consideration I weighed the options – would they find the keys if i put them on the front tire? The windshield? Probably not. Should I open the car door and place them on the car seat? Maybe during the day, but not at night – that would go beyond just helping and risk trespassing. The obvious option seemed to remove the keys and drop them on the ground immediately below the lock. There they’d be easily found by the owners when they searched their pockets, but wouldn’t be readily visible to everyone in the parking lot. I dropped the keys, and began my way towards the bars where I was schedule to meet several friends.
I got about 15 feet before a large male (I’m 6’4/200 pounds and this guy was larger/more athletic) started shouting at me from ahead of me. I quickly explained the situation, what was going on, and encouraged the guy to calm down and talk to me. He wasn’t having it. The back and forth continued for a solid minute as I backpedaled maintain my distance while he threatened me, demanded MY keys, and ignored what I was saying. I even went so far as to volunteer to call the police over, if he’d calm down, so that I could explain the situation. The threats continued, even after I could see that the Girl he was with found the keys – right where I said they’d be – and had opened the car door.
Eventually he decided threats of putting me in the hospital were insufficient, and made a leap towards me. I know when I’m outgunned – and I retreated. Quickly. He couldn’t keep up, gave up shortly there after, turned and made a B-line back to my vehicle, which he proceeded to kick repeatedly leaving heavy scuffing on the trunk and denting in the rear passenger side door so badly that it won’t open. Keep in mind, all of this has occurred AFTER I’ve offered to discuss the incident with the police and after the girl he was with had gained access to the car.
Still keeping my distance, I dialed 911 as soon as he headed back towards the vehicles and requested police intervention. They arrived, but not before the thug and the woman he was with got into their car and burned out of the parking lot – unfortunately – before I could close enough distance to grab a plate number.
So, what did trying to help someone get me? Very nearly a serious trip to the hospital, and at least a $500 deductible to get the damage fixed.
To Pay It Backwards?
The whole event left me feeling incredibly frustrated, angry, and disheartened. Beyond that, it left me wondering what I’d do in the future when I find myself faced with a similar dilemma. The thought do nothing of course came to mind, but it didn’t stop there. What might I do in the future? After all, helping someone had just been negatively re-enforced, so why not do the opposite? Why not sheer the key off in the lock with a quick kick? Should I join countless other Arizonans and start carrying A gun? A knife?
As each of these thoughts floated through my mind over the course of the evening, I inevitably had to keep reminding myself that the cost still merited the greater benefit. That I was faced with a very clear opportunity. I could stick to my guns and remain a “shit happens” person, or I could pack it in, throw up a white flag, and retreat to the “If only”, “poor me” camp.
For my part I’ve chosen to stick to my guns. In the future I may think twice before deciding to go ahead and try and help someone out in a similar situation, but I’ll still do it. Why? Because it’s worth it. Unfortunately, discussions I’ve had with friends in the last 24 hours left me feeling like these types of events have led a lot of people to abandon a Pay It Forward approach to life, which is a loss for us all. I hope if you find yourself in that camp, that you’ll re-consider.
At the end of the day, despite the occasional cost – it’s worth it.