I’m feeling curmudgeonly this morning.

The New York Times recently ran an article about paying it forward. [read it here.] The contemporary trend started with a 1999 book and movie by Catherine Ryan Hyde. It’s the moral opposite of paying back, or getting revenge. In it, a 12-year-old, as a social studies project, comes up with the idea: do a good deed for three people, and in exchange, ask each of them to “pay it forward” to three more. “So nine people get helped. Then those people have to do twenty-seven…. Then it sort of spreads out.” It’s a great story. If you haven’t read or seen it, you should.

The trend that the New York Times reports is of people paying for the next car’s order in a fast food drive-thru line:

Perhaps the largest outbreak of drive-through generosity occurred last December at a Tim Hortons in Winnipeg, Manitoba, when 228 consecutive cars paid it forward. A string of 67 cars paid it forward in April at a Chick-fil-A in Houston. And then a Heav’nly Donuts location in Amesbury, Mass., had a good-will train of 55 cars last July.

So — what’s the point? Everyone gets a warm fuzzy for being a kind and caring person, but in reality it’s only the last car in line that gets the free lunch and only the first car that pays. There is a certain level of uncertainty — you might just be ordering a single small soft drink and end up paying for the entire vanload of hungry soccer girls — but it’s a limited action.

The Times article also says:

The anonymity of the drive-through makes it especially easy to pay it forward because it dispenses with any awkwardness and suspicion about motives. The payer pulls away before the next car pulls up and discovers a gift that is impossible to refuse.

“If you paid for someone inside a restaurant, they would see you,” said Jessica Kelishes, a marketing representative for an auto parts distributor, who pays it forward at Del Taco, McDonald’s and Starbucks drive-throughs in Banning, Calif. “I just do it out of kindness rather than for recognition.”

I get the modesty and humility vibe. But what I find hardest about compassion — accompanying another person in his or her suffering — is exactly that. Accompanying. Getting involved. Being seen. Taking on some of the pain. This whole movement seems designed to avoid that. Anonymity also means arms-length. I want to cheer you up, but don’t go telling me why you’re sad. That might ruin my day.

Another thing that bugs me is that this is helping people who probably don’t need help. They’re people with cars who probably live in your middle class neighborhood and have money for take-out food. Paying it forward for someone’s daily $10 coffee indulgence does not make the world a better place. It’s not helping the truly hungry and desperate — say, the one-in-four children in San Antonio who suffer food insecurity.

If you are paying it forward, keep on doing it. It reminds people that not everyone is a meanie. But also think about the true need and real suffering in our city and what you can do about THAT.

Historical note: This isn’t a new idea. Ben Franklin wrote about it to a friend in 1724:

“I do not pretend to give such a deed; I only lend it to you. When you […] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.”

And Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in his 1841 essay Compensation:

“In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.”

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