The term “pay it forward” was popularized in 2000, when Haley Joel Osment starred alongside Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt in a big screen adaptation of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel, Pay It Forward.
In the movie, a teacher, played by Spacey, gives his class an unconventional assignment: to create a project that will generate positive change in the world. Osment, his student, develops “Pay it Forward,” according to which individuals on the receiving end of a good deed have to complete three acts of kindness for three different people, in turn. However, the three acts had to be difficult enough that the beneficiaries couldn’t complete them easily.
The movie’s underlying message is that positive change in the world doesn’t require grand gestures or extensive planning. Instead, people can promote social good in simple, yet effective, ways.
As a 10-year-old, I didn’t know or understand the term “cliché,” and took the message at face-value. After watching the movie in class, I brainstormed various favors I could complete for strangers. However, no deed seemed adequate enough to change the world the way Osment did.
My opinion changed approximately one year later, when I saw two cousins help an elderly woman up several flights of stairs, voluntarily.
My cousins and I were visiting another family member who lived in a six-story apartment building. That day, the elevator wasn’t functioning, so everyone was forced to climb the stairs. The elderly woman, a quadriplegic, was in no position to walk, and my cousins asked if she had someone to assist her.
The woman told us she was alone and would wait until the elevator was fixed – but my cousins wouldn’t hear of it. They asked if they could lend a hand, and after she nodded in approval, one cousin lifted the woman and carried her to the fourth floor while the other carried her wheelchair. The woman was as overjoyed as I was shocked by the selfless act.
That day I learned that opportunities to help people present themselves unexpectedly; we don’t necessarily have to seek them out. The incident had a profound impact on me, as I left the scene more committed than ever to mirror the altruistic behavior I witnessed in that six-story building.
I saw an equally powerful scene about a year ago, when I took my five-year-old cousin to play at the park. As soon as I finished pushing him in the swings, he made a mad dash across the playground and grabbed a handful of dandelions from a patch of grass. Curious as to what he would do with the flowers, he sprinted across the playground and stopped in front of a lonely girl who was sitting under a tree. I noticed the girl was crying as I approached, but before I could say anything my little cousin handed her the dandelions. “I thought you could use these. I saw you crying and I wanted to tell you that you have a friend in me,” he told her.
I assumed the two knew each other, but the girl stopped crying seconds later in order to introduce herself. I was floored (and extremely proud) by my cousin’s actions. Unprompted, he took it upon himself to help someone in need.
The episode reminded me that everyone has the ability to improve the lives of others with simple gestures. At a time when I doubted my ability to advance positive change in the world, my cousin’s actions instilled a new sense of purpose in me.
I suspect that it’s part of human nature to feel overwhelmed by injustice, which renders us disillusioned with trying to make the world a better place. It’s easy to lose optimism, focus, and motivation in the face of social evils like war, poverty, and hunger.
But watching people complete random acts of kindness teaches us that social change depends on the very deeds that seem trivial. If we limit ourselves to macro-level change, we overlook immediate opportunities to assist others in meaningful ways.
Carimah Townes is a Special Assistant for ThinkProgress. She received a B.A. in political science from UCLA, where she also studied cultural anthropology. While in school, she served as a festival planner and interned with the Office of Mayor Villaraigosa. Before joining ThinkProgress, she worked for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and interned with the Communications and Development teams at Vital Voices Global Partnership.