I think this is basically an ancient way of saying ‘Pay it forward.’ I absolutely agree with this idea. Now that I have a family, I believe this even more. I can respect and care for my parents, who have given me much for my success in life. But I can pass on the gifts and resources to help my kids succeed as a way of paying forward the generosity shown to me.
And not just my kids, but everyone’s kids. Modern America is a divided society, segregated primarily by class. We have less upwards economic mobility than we have in several generations, and less than most other industrialized nations, particularly Western Europe. Rising inequality is primarily to blame. My husband and I talk about how much easier it was to buy a house and support a family with only one working parent 30 years ago than it is now. Yet, I feel like those of us in our 30s and 40s are still living under the expectations that we can have the lives our parents had, and raise kids the way we were raised. I don’t think it’s possible. At least, not without help.
Giving back, helping others, is much easier if we ourselves have received assistance. It’s easy to judge welfare recipients if we’ve never struggled to pay bills, afford stable housing, or get enough to eat. I guess some people are so used to having others pay their way or handle their struggles for them that they expect others to always bail them out. I’ve met very few of those people in my life. Most people I know have worked hard and accepted help when it’s been needed.
Adam reminds me that perhaps this maxim might be talking about giving back negative things. I don’t know how the actual Greek breaks down. Instinctively, I leaped to the positive interpretation. I’d like not to live in a world where we give back negative for negative. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, so goes the saying. I’d rather walk away from those who hurt me or create systems of oppression and work instead to pay forward the good.
Too much of politics and parenting seem built around the bitter attitude of ‘well, I had it hard, and I turned out fine, so you shouldn’t have it any easier!’ But what if we didn’t have to work so hard? I’m not talking being lazy and never working diligently for anything. I mean, what if we didn’t have to work obscene hours at menial jobs for pay that doesn’t afford us basic health care? What if we didn’t have to protect children from abuse and neglect? What if we didn’t have fear walking down the street at night? What if we didn’t have to have bars on our windows and make certain we locked every door? Why can’t we make it easier for our descendents?
So I’ll be voting for things that make others’ lives easier. I’ll be raising my kids with every resource that’s been given to me. I’ll be donating regularly, even when times are tough, to area organizations doing the same. (This last one is also enlightened self-interest. Who knows when I might need assistance?) Paying it forward, giving back what you have received, is a form of gratitude. Gratitude is an antidote to bitterness. Gratitude is also a powerful way to make our families and communities better, healthier, happier, stronger units.