When I mentioned this to my wife, she said "Well the right thing to do would be to help her. But it's not like we can just flip a U-turn right here." She was right. While traffic made it impossible to turn the car around, we were being called to help. I turned the car right to go around the block when a tight entrance to a small parking lot led us right back to where we needed to be. We slowed down and turned on our hazard lights as we approached the stalled vehicle. In the driver seat was a young girl in her early 20's.
Alone and stuck in the darkest part of the street in a not so safe neighborhood I think she was relieved to see a nice couple in a minivan approach. She said she was out of gas and that someone was coming with some. Her car, however, was still blocking traffic. So I offered to help her move it safely under the street light. Which we did with some considerable effort.
The girl was very gracious and grateful for our help. She said the standard "I don't know how I can repay you for helping" as we were leaving. But as I turned around, I noticed the intrigued look on her face when my wife said, "Pay it forward by doing something nice for a stranger." It was as if the girl had never heard of the concept. As we watched the light bulb go off in her head, we knew that we had just made a small impact on the world.
The concept of Paying it Forward isn't new by any means. The expression is used to describe the concept of asking that a good deed be repaid by having it done to another person instead of yourself.
In 1784 Ben Franklin once wrote in a letter to a friend: I do not pretend to give such a Sum; 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.
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."
And in 1944 an anonymous spokesperson for Alcoholics Anonymous is quoted in the Christian Science Monitor as saying: "You can't pay anyone back for what has happened to you, so you try to find someone you can pay forward."
It was the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde "Pay If Forward" which was published in 2000 and later adapted into a film by the same title that brought new light to the subject in more modern time. In the book she describes it as an obligation to do three good deeds for others in repayment for one good deed that one receives. In doing so, the idea of helping each other spreads exponentially through society, creating a social movement with the goal of making the world a better place. Inspiring millions of people, as well as the creation of the Pay It Forward Foundation, ( http://www.payitforwardfoundation.org ) the concept is not so far from lessons of love and compassion that Jesus taught over 2000 years ago.