Parable of the Sower: 2. Choose to Pay it Forward or Break the Chain


One of the phrases that have entered our vocabulary in the past few years is “pay it forward”, meaning to do a random act of kindness for someone whom you do not expect to pay you back (hence the phrase “pay it forward“).   This is a great concept, and is to be commended.

But what if you have received an unkindness, an insult, an injury, from someone?    In that case, you should not pay it forward, although that is the source of a lot of inter-generational family drama.   Rather, you should break the chain and let the unkindness stop at your doorstep.

Let me give you an example.   My parents both had one of their parents abandon them, one through alcoholism when he was a child, and the other one through her mother who didn’t want to stay in the same house with her abusive husband.   These created childhood issues that remained with them throughout adulthood, but one thing they were committed to was the idea that they would never abandon their own children.    Later when we had grown to adulthood, we found out that they did have their fights as all couples do, but whenever it would get seriously enough for one of them to think of walking out on the marriage, they always reconciled to stay together and work out their differences for the sake of remaining married for the sake of the children.    Being the recipient of such devotion, we never knew that they had never experienced the same security when they themselves were kids, which meant that their own performance as parents was even more exemplary by comparison.

In the past five years, I’ve grown to be a fan of Pema Chödrön, an ordained nun of Tibetan Buddhism, who in her book When things fall apart: heart advice for difficult times, describes the meditation practice known as tonglen, where you breathe in the suffering of others on the intake breath, and you breathe out peace, forgiving, and healing on the outtake breath.    It’s a very powerful technique, and at some point I realized my philosophy of choosing to pay it forward or to break the chain is a living manifestation of this meditation technique.   If you encounter suffering of others, or their negative emotions, you absorb it as you do on the intake breath of tonglen, but you neutralize it and do not breathe it out.    Instead you spread positive deeds by “paying it forward” as you do on the outtake breath of tonglen.

This is something that I weave into all my activities, including, for example, Toastmasters.   When I joined Toastmasters, I had no mentor.   For months, I stumbled into what I was supposed to do by the power of osmosis and observation from watching what others did.    I realized later on that there was a lot that I was doing wrong that I wasn’t aware of.   I could have been bitter about the wasted time and wasted opportunity, but instead I turned that negative emotion into a fierce determination that, when I was a club officer, I would make sure that new members got a mentor to help them figure out how to work the Toastmasters program.   And that’s what I did with Jeffrey Lewis, a new member in our club.   However, although I did not expect to be paid back for my kindness to him, I ended up being rewarded anyway.   Just recently, when I made my application for the Advanced Communicator Gold award, I used that experience as a mentor to Jeffrey Lewis as fulfilling one of my requirements for the award.   So three years later, it has come to be a help to me in my own advancement within Toastmasters.

So, although you should not “Pay it Forward” with an eye towards any benefit for yourself, don’t worry, the reward will come, even if not from the person to whom you paid that kindness.   And by NOT paying forward any unkindnesses you receive, but rather breaking the chain, you make the world a better place.

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