Instant Karma Day

Devastating story out of San Diego (take a moment and read it here: you won’t forget it) got me thinking about the phrase “Pay it forward.”

Remember that? It was hatched by the novelist Catherine Ryan Hyde and caught on big-time following the Joel Haley Osment film.

“Paying it forward,” as a social impulse, still seems to appear spontaneously from time to time – hot gas from the dormant volcano of collective goodwill — but for the most part it feels a relic of another era. A “Nineties thing.”

You know what? That’s a bit tragic. I’m sorry but this is too good an idea to consign to the “fad” bin. Sure we can retire the phrase, but I’d hate to see the reflex behind it lost in the wash. It’s noble. It’s ancient. It reflects the very best that’s in us as a species.

Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher, outlined eight levels of charity.

The bottom rung of the ladder is giving a gift under duress — forking it over unwillingly and with grumpy resistance.

One rung up is giving a chintzy gift, but with a friendly smile. And so on.

A “pay it forward” gift belongs near the very top of the ladder: to give anonymously — you don’t know the recipient and she doesn’t know you — amounts to, as Maimonides put it, “performing a mitzvah solely for the sake of Heaven.”

Ideally you’d want to bestow your gift and walk briskly away before the recipient can identify you. Or drive away. As these guys did:

“Pay it Forward” would be a killer theme for a Big Day. And simple. You’d just engineer a chain of benevolent gestures, expecting nothing in return. Maybe you drop in to the blood clinic and make a donation. Then, out on the street, you give your umbrella to someone caught in the rain (or a hat to someone baking in the sun). Then you look for a lawn to mow (or a walk to shovel). Then you lurk around the till at a thrift store, unsheathing your Visa card to pay for, say, that single-mom’s baby-shoes. And then you vanish. Like a superhero. Fun! The sense of virtue might make your head spin. (And not just because you’re down a pint of blood.)

Turns out I’m not the first to think of this. A group calling itself the Pay It Forward Foundation has declared the last Thursday in April Pay it Forward Day.

They have little cards that you can download via this website. On one side is an explanation of the “pay it forward” ethic, and on the other side are 24 little boxes that get ticked off as the card travels around and various acts of generosity are carried out.

But I don’t even think you have to tell people to “Pay it forward!” In a weird way — and I think Maimonides would back me up here — it’s bordering on gauche to ask explicitly for the recipient to close the loop. If you do it in the right spirit, the “pay it forward” vibe is going to be in the air anyway. Karma will rev its engines.

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