When Pay It Forward Meets Its Match

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.

An Example

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.

Sleeping at the Hospital and My Intro to Stavanger


Trip to Stavanger

I’ve known for quite some time now that I can’t sleep sitting up. Give me a flat surface or a semblance of one and I’m out in minutes even if its alongside a busy street. A reclining chair though?  Heaven help me. It’s a hopeless battle. So, no doubt you can imagine what – or should I say how – I spent most of my 8 hour overnight train ride from Oslo to Stavanger. I suppose given my propensity for the odd but no less boisterous snore it was ultimately in the best interests of everyone else in the train car…still…I’m just selfish enough, that I’d have gladly said to hell with them and dozed contentedly even if it might have sounded as though we had a freight train in tow.

The one upside to, well…being up was that by 3 or 4AM when the sun began to rise, I was awake and able to see the sheer beauty of the Norwegian countryside as dawn stirred it from a fitful evening’s rest. It was beautiful.  With gorgeous fjords, wild shorelines, small rivers, and beautiful forests it was my first true taste of the untamed Norwegian countryside.

Tall Ship - Stavanger, Norway

Eventually, the wild countryside gave way to a more domesticated landscape.  One with cottages, small towns, sleepy villages, and then eventually a bustling city. I’d arrived in the city of Stavanger.  At just over 120,000 citizens in the city proper and 300,000 or so in the Stavanger Metro Area it ranks as Norway’s third largest city, though if you’re like the average tourist, you may not necessarily have heard of it.   Located at the end of a rail line which branches out from Stavanger and forks down through Kristiansand before winding back up and around the deep fjords to Stavanger the city is geographically fairly close to the popular tourist and cruise destination of Bergen but only accessible from Bergen by ferry, bus or car as rail traffic to the city requires a return trip back to Oslo and then back out towards Bergen.

Upon my arrival I spent a considerable amount of time in the cool morning air dodging the occasional raindrop as I tried to make heads or tails of what seemed to be profoundly vague hostel directions.  After asking several bus drivers and getting a variety of different looks and answers I eventually tracked down the pick up spot for Bus 11. Though it sounds like a simple enough task, it was about a block away from the station and halfway around the small lake which sits in front of the train station.  Made that much more challenging to identify, as the spot was marked by a small placard on a lamp post instead of the glass booths which marked the other 20 something bus stops.

Sleepy Duck - Stavanger, Norway

The ride itself was rather painless.  My goal was to find the Student Hospital which my notes from the Hosteling International website identified as the closest nearby landmark.  As it turned out, the bus driver though being friendly, really didn’t speak much English and apparently either misunderstood my question, or forgot about it. As I watched what looked like it might be a hospital drift past, a friendly local who had over heard my conversation with the driver, suggested that I get off at the next stop for the hospital.  Grateful, I hit the button just in time and sighed in relief as we pulled over and paused at the 2nd (and last) stop near the hospital.

The bus pulled away, and I found myself standing somewhat baffled. The directions said it was located near the hospital and was at times used as overflow accommodation for the hospital.  Weird, but no big deal…right?  The catch was, the only thing I could see besides the hospital was a sea of houses. With a harrumph, I spotted the  Hospital Hotel – a hotel which was physically attached to the hospital itself and shared a common lobby, but which was designed to service hospitalized patients family members as well as those no longer i need of an actual hospital bed, but not yet ready to leave the immediate vicinity of the hospital itself.  I figured that of all the locals, the front desk staff at the hospital was my best bet for locating the hostel.

Cathedral - Stavanger, Norway

A few minutes later found me in the hospital lobby at the hotel desk.  As I walked up and smiled, I looked more than a little out of place, surrounded as I was by new and expectant mothers, bandaged elderly, and the occasional wheelchair bound patient out for a stroll.

“Excuse me? Can I ask you a quick question?” I asked somewhat meekly.

I followed up the woman’s nod and courteous smile, “Can you perchance tell me where to find the Hostel near here?”.

Her nose crinkled slightly as her lips pouted to one side in an obvious expression of thought before she responded, “A Hostel?  I’m not familiar with one, but let me ask my boss”.

She turned and beckoned to a second woman in the office behind her. I groaned silently in gentle frustration.

She passed my question on, and then took a step to the side as the manager joined me at the counter. “Oh!” She exclaimed “That’s us! We actually just began renting out hostel rooms, though none of the supplies have arrived yet”. I stood temporarily left mute, then recovered quickly as she continued, “Since we don’t have the bunks yet, we’ll give you a private room at the price you booked at (some 295 NOK or about $45 USD).  I checked in trying to not chuckle and began to ponder the oddity of it all.

It’s important to note that while by general European and international standards $45/night for a hostel bed is ridiculous (and by far $10 more than any other hostel I stayed in), it was fairly reasonable for Stavanger which is only serviced by 2 hostels.  The other of which is a a classic Hi Hostel which charged 250 NOK for a dorm room, and an additional fee for wifi and sheets which I figured would have come to ~295 NOK if not more. Which, despite the profoundly bizarre nature of the accommodation, made what I’ve begun calling the Hospithostal a fairly decent deal.

The good news was I ended up with my own room, with a great/clean bathroom, Television with Cable, a 4th story view out over the fjord and free Wifi with a strong signal.  The bad news was, I was effectively in a hotel attached to a hospital and seemed to be one of, if not the only backpacker in the place. As you can imagine, I wasn’t thrilled by my prospects for wild and crazy adventures with fellow hostellers. I really can’t imagine the Hospithostel has any clue what they’re signing up for – I can imagine a lot of odd and off beat locations poorly prepared for the onslaught of a group of drunk and rowdy traveling Aussies and Americans, but a hospital is one place that just begs trouble. Especially given drunken hosteller’s propensity for playing with things and ending up in places they really aught not be in. Luckily for my criminal record (or lack there of) my stay in Stavanger ended up being a quiet one. No co-conspirators, no wandering through the hospital, and no memorable antics.  Which, given the beating my body ended up taking during the Preikestolen hike, was probably a good thing.

…and what the hell – how many hostels have YOU stayed in where you had to pass on the first elevator that showed up because a mother was pushing her newborn baby in a crib on wheels around the hospital for a post-delivery recovery walk.

I settled in, did laundry, and then curled up for a nap.  It was only 10AM after all, and I needed to recharge before heading into town and beginning my explorations.