Pay it forward. Random act of kindness. We have all heard the buzzwords and have an idea of what they are. I wonder how many of us have been the beneficiary of such an act. If you have, do you remember how it felt? Did it change you, give you a different perception of the people around you?
While I know that I am the constant recipient of these acts in a small way, there was a period of time, several years ago, in which we not only benefited from a number of them, but actually were in dire need of them. It was an uncomfortable time, to put it bluntly. You might also say, an embarrassing span of time. I use the word embarrassing because I remember, it was during this chapter of life that I first really became cognizant of the term “financially embarrassed”, and I’m certain that I was also aware of the meaning in a very personal way. It unquestionably had a direct application to our condition.
It was not too many years after we had purchased the music store from my in-laws. Business wasn’t deplorable, but it wasn’t booming either. We had enough to pay our bills and that was about it. We had even been able to put back a couple of thousand dollars and were planning to replace the ancient old roof on our two-story Victorian home with it. But I guess we needed to learn about giving and receiving, more than we needed to be self-sufficient.
A chain of events would make crystal clear how closely our lives were intertwined with our friends, family, and church. We loaned our van (which was essential to our business) to a group of students going to Florida for a mission trip. “It uses oil,” I told the young man in charge. “I guarantee you will need to add some, so just check it every time you fill up with gas.” Receiving assurances that he would, the van left, loaded to capacity with kids and equipment and pulling a small trailer. The following Saturday morning, the desperate call came; the motor had burned up and they were stranded in Mobile, Alabama. It appears that, not being experienced in such matters, he had religiously checked the dipstick at every fill-up, just not the engine oil dipstick. He had been checking the transmission fluid, which hadn’t moved a millimeter the whole trip! Since no oil was added at all, the motor seized up and was scrap.
What a disaster! Not only was the van dead, but they wanted us to come get them. This is where the amazing giving from others started, although right at the time, it was difficult for us to appreciate. One good friend and his wife offered to go with me and did so completely at their own expense, towing a trailer with which we could retrieve the van. Another friend offered his van to bring the kids back in, which we did over the weekend. After we returned with the crippled van on the trailer, a local mechanic offered to rebuild the motor at a greatly reduced price, but even so, our roof fund was depleted in the process.
Time after time, through the months to come, gifts were handed to us, or a little cash slipped into my hand, even some gift certificates for the local grocery store were left in the mailbox. But the icing on the cake came when our friend Jim, who teaches building construction at the local university, called and told us that we were going to get that new roof put on the house. We would need to buy the materials, but all the labor would be provided in the way of friends, most from our church, who had volunteered to spend whatever time it took to get it done.
What a week! The two-story house had eaves which, in places were 20 feet off the ground, and the pitch of the roof was incredibly steep. Scaffold was built, old shingles pulled off (with 85 year-old Mr. Hood picking most of it up off the ground), materials lifted up by crane (also provided at no expense to us), new decking installed and building felt and shingles laid down. The description of the endeavor could never draw an adequate picture, but I will always remember Dr. B plunging through the rotten porch roof and catching himself before dropping to the floor below, as well as Ray sliding off the decking up at the twenty-foot level, only to catch himself on the railing of our make-shift scaffold, short of plunging to the ground before. As we were building the railing, Jim had quipped, “It’s only for a visual. It would never stop anybody from going over.” How glad we were that he was wrong! And what a great time of fellowship and fun together!
Words cannot describe the gratitude! Even now, 20 years later, I get choked up as I think of the sacrifice of time, effort, and yes, even money these folks willingly gave to us. There was no expectation of repayment, no feeling of obligation, just an offering freely imparted to friends. And, while it was indeed a humbling experience for us to need the help, there was no sense of arrogance, no negative air of largesse in the benefactors. These were friends, doing what friends do, simply because that is how friendship works.
I wish that I can say that I have proven myself worthy of the gift. I would like to be able to point to the great deeds that I have done as a result of that wonderful period, but I cannot. What I can tell you is that I do frequently find myself looking for the hidden things that need to be done for others. I’m not great at it. Some times, I hear about needs after they have been filled by others more gifted in seeing the disguised opportunities and wonder how I missed them. But we can only live by the light that is given to us. I’ve had opportunities and at times have come through with flying colors.
I’m going to keep working at it. Hopefully, I’ll keep getting better at it. But, if you see me slacking off and not helping out where I’m needed, a quick reminder of that time when I needed some random acts of kindness should be enough to get the fire lit under me. I would hate to be the “Knave” in Mr. Franklin’s note below, who stops the progress of the gift. I’m doing my best to keep paying it forward as long as I’m able.
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. ~Benjamin Franklin in a letter dated April 22, 1784