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Paying it Backward, Paying it Forward

August 26, 2011

Repost: Paying it Backward, Paying it Forward:

The concept of paying forward a good deed is familiar to us. It was brought to light beautifully in the film that coined the term, Pay it Forward, starring Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey. The premise is to do something for three people that makes a positive difference in each of their lives. The recipient of the good will then goes on to offer their service to three others. It is a loving, foundational concept in affecting the world for the better; to receive someone’s good intentions and pass it on times three.

But what of paying it backward? What of being the recipient of someone’s gifts – their time, wisdom, and energy – and acknowledging them for the difference they made in your life? Are we cognizant of the “thank yous” that we need to say to people who made an impact in our lives? I was speaking with a friend about some of the people who played a significant role in helping us to develop into the people we are today; people without whom our lives would have taken very different paths that would have been less rich and fulfilling than they are now. We spoke of the fact that some of those people do not know how significant they have been in helping to shape us and affect our lives for the better.

I imagine that all of us have at least one person in our lives that has played such a role. It may have been a college professor or a teacher from your earlier years. Perhaps it is one or both of your parents. You may have a friend who was there when you needed him or her.  Maybe you were inspired by a spiritual leader, or a colleague at work or in your professional field. It might have been someone you knew well or met only once. Who are these people? Have you taken time to identify them? If they don’t know of the impact they had on you, this is a great time to tell them.

A while back I wrote two blogs acknowledging one of my former teachers, Angela Thoburn, who was incredibly instrumental in guiding me to establish a foundation and path for my life. It had been twenty years since we had been in touch, but in writing those blogs I felt it important to invite her to read them so she would know of the difference she made in my life. It was my way of saying, “Thank you” to her. Since we had both moved since we had seen each other, I had to find her first. I didn’t know if the contact information I had for her was current, but I gave it a shot. It turned out that my communication reached her, and she responded with such appreciation for the acknowledgment. So often in life we go without knowing where we have made a contribution. We all need to know that we have made a difference.

It gets me thinking that there are other people I need to seek out so I can say, “Thank you.”  You may be thinking the same thing. You may not have approached those individuals because you hadn’t thought of it. Or, you may be overcome with excusitis, finding yourself ruminating in the following thoughts:

  • How will I find them?
  • What if they don’t remember me?
  • We had a falling out. I don’t know how I feel about opening that door again.
  • Oh my goodness, this is embarrassing. I have been out of touch for so many years.
  • I am not so comfortable expressing my feelings.

My experience is that the response you receive will be one of gratitude and appreciation. You will recognize that your action is giving a gift back to someone who has given one to you: paying it backward. It may guide you to think, “Gee, why did I wait so long to do this? It was so great to connect and to share my deep thanks.” And the gift continues to give to you both.

There are some people to whom we cannot express our thanks. The individual is no longer alive or the situation makes it impossible to seek them out. In cases like this, we can still acknowledge the source of the gifts in our lives, but instead of paying it backward to the source, we can pay it forward to someone else, or better yet, to three others. Perhaps there are family members of the one who touched your life that you can approach. Or you can take the tact of Pay it Forward’s Trevor McKinney and find a way to pass on the gift that you have been given to others entirely.

Whether you are paying it backward or paying it forward, you will simultaneously make a personal acknowledgment to an individual who made a difference in your life, while you continue to make an impact for good in the world around you.

Robin Damsky

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