"The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, humbling, and (insofar as it involves love) pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous."
— Wendell Berry in
Sex, Economy, Freedom, Community
Talk to young people today, and you'll find that many of them are not very optimistic about the future. Feeling hemmed in by the world's troubles — homelessness, environmental degradation, violence — they yearn for a reason to hope. Adults, too, are cautious when it comes to speaking about a bright and cheery tomorrow. They point to the terrible incivility of our times where on the street, at home, and in the business world everyone seems to be consumed with taking care of Number One. Small acts of courtesy, it seems, are a thing of the past. Basic respect for others certainly is not evident in flaming on the Internet, talking in theaters, or gridlock in traffic.
This inspiring and imaginative film is based on a novel of the same title by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Mimi Leder (ER, China Beach, Deep Impact) directs from a screenplay by Leslie Dixon. It dares to point us in a different direction. It boldly reveals that kindness and putting others first are acts of moral beauty. It concretely proclaims that each person can make a difference in the world by doing good. And the catalyst for all of this is an eleven-year-old boy.
The questions and exercises in this Values & Visions Guide are organized in seven thematic modules. Feel free to use any or all of them in any order. Pay It Forward is a deeply moral film, and it deserves your deepest attention, deliberation, and discussion.
Pay It Forward runs 123 minutes and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements including substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language, and brief violence.
Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) is an eleven-year-old who lives in Las Vegas with his working-class mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt), who is a recovering alcoholic. She works hard at two jobs to support her son but feels that it is a losing battle. Trevor is a latch-key kid who often has to take care of himself.
This seventh-grader's spirits are lifted when on the first day of school Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), his new social studies teacher, gives the class an extra credit assignment: "Think of an idea to change our world and put it into action." Whereas the rest of the class has trouble looking past the teacher's badly scarred face, Trevor realizes that he now has been given a moral adventure.
The energetic and idealistic boy decides he will do a good deed for three people, something they can't do for themselves, and then will ask each one of them to "pay it forward" by doing similarly difficult big favors for three others. Trevor begins by helping out a homeless man (James Caviezel), a heroin addict. He gives him lodging for a night, a chance to take a shower, and some money so the fellow can get it together and look for a job.
Trevor's second mission is to bring the lonely Eugene together with his mother. Only trouble is that they both must deal with old tapes of fear, self-doubt, and lack of self-esteem. And to make matters worse, Trevor's physically abusive and alcoholic father (Jon Bon Jovi) returns home. The boy's third project is to help out a weak classmate at school who is always being attacked by bullies.
Meanwhile, a Los Angeles reporter, Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr), is knocked for a loop when a lawyer (Gary Werntz) gives him his Jaguar after seeing that his old Mustang has been totaled. Tracking the rich man down, he learns that his action was part of paying forward the kindness he received from an African American (David Ramsey) in a hospital emergency room. That person, in turn, was given a new lease on life by an alcoholic lady (Angie Dickinson) who lives in her car in a desolate area outside Las Vegas.
Eventually, Chandler's investigations lead him to Trevor and his innovative "pay it forward" project that has already had more of a positive impact on the world than he had realized. The repor ter does an interview with the boy on his twelfth birthday. Soon afterwards Trevor is back at his good work helping out his classmate at school.
"Helping out is not some special skill," Ram Dass and Paul Gorman write in How Can I Help? "It is not the domain of rare individuals. It is not confined to a single part or time of ourselves. We simply heed the call of that caring impulse within and follow where it leads."
- What are your first impression of Trevor and his teacher Eugene? What personal qualities do they demonstrate in the film that show they believe in the beneficial powers of helping out and caring?
- How would you answer these questions that Eugene poses to his class on the first day of school: What does the world mean to you? How often do you think about things that happen outside this town? What does the world expect of you? Is the ideal of "interacting with the world," as Eugene describes Trevor's project, something you were taught as a child? Is service emphasized in your family, in your neighborhood, and in your religious community? What obstacles have gotten in the way of your heeding the call of the caring impulse within you?
"A friend of mine," notes Rabbi Rami Shapiro, "makes it a habit to drop a quarter in a parking meter that has expired to save the car's owner a ticket. Every once in a while the car's owner sees him do it. The look of shock, he says, at this simple act of kindness both saddens me and makes me glad. I'm glad I could help but I am sad that such acts are so rare."
- Share your reactions to the scene where the reporter responds to the stranger who gives him the key to his Jaguar.
- Think back to the last time when you were surprised or overwhelmed by someone's act of kindness toward you. Were you able to accept this deed with grace or was it difficult for you to express your gratitude? Discuss the ways in which cynicism in our society has tarnished our openness to acts of selflessness, courtesy, and generosity.
In Heal Thyself, Saki Santorelli writes: "Being undone is the way we unfold. Certainly we resist this re-framing in a thousand ways. Comfort is seductive. The desire for the usual, the expected, and the anticipated soon becomes a prison of our own making."
- What are some of the roadblocks that Arlene and Eugene face as they try to draw closer to each other in an intimate relationship? With which of them do you most identify? Why?
- Sometimes it's hard to believe that it is possible to turn our lives around and do a new thing. On a scale of one to five, how would you rate your ability to change? What major transformations have you made in your life?
4. LOVE IN LITTLE THINGS
"They also serve who express their love in little things," the Indian guru Meher Baba has observed. "A word that gives courage to a broken heart or a smile that brings hope in the midst of gloom is as much service as heroic sacrifice. A glance that wipes out bitterness from the heart is also service, although there may be no thought of service in it."
- Which acts of kindness, love, and forgiveness in the film touched your heart the most? Why?
- If you were to initiate a "pay it forward" project, where would you begin? What acts of kindness, compassion, and love have you done that involved little things? How did they turn out? Does not knowing about the consequences of your good deeds bother you? Why or why not?
"I need you to listen to me. No one has listened to me, no one understands my suffering, including the ones who say they love me. The pain inside me is suffo cating me," Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist teacher and peacemaker, writes in a poem.
- Share your responses to the Trevor's television interview where he talks about his feelings about the "pay it forward" project. How do you interpret his statement "You have to watch people to protect them because they can't see what they need"?
- Talk about the links between really listening to others and serving them in love. What is your reaction to those who say that you can't really "fix" another person?
6. LIVE WITH HOPE
"Hope is the basis for taking responsibility; for claiming our capacity to create, to make a genuinely new thing. It is also the springboard for trying to act justly; and for accepting absolutely our incorporation into each other," Sara Maitland proclaims in A Big Enough God.
- One of the major points of this film is that a single person can make a big difference in the quality of life on the planet. In what concrete ways has what you have seen on the screen given you hope?
- Many of the greatest spiritual leaders of our time, including Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, were a force for positive good in the world as active agents of hope. Read some of the writings of these moral mentors. Then talk about ways in which you can restore hope as an animating faculty to your life.
7. YOUR GOOD WORK
"Every single one of us has a good work to do in life," Flannery O'Connor wrote: "This good work not only accomplishes something needed in the world but completes something in us."
- Discuss your reactions to the end of the film in terms of Flannery O'Connor's comment on good work.
- All the world's religious traditions celebrate the supreme worth of the spiritual practices of compassion, forgiveness, hope, kindness, love, and transformation. What fresh dimensions of these practices has this film dropped into your head and heart?
This guide is one in a series of more than 200 Values & Visions Guides written by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. Text Copyright © 2000 by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. Photos by David James courtesy of Warner Bros. This guide is posted as a service to visitors to www.spiritualityandpractice.com. It may not be photocopied, reprinted, or distributed electronically without permission from Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. For this permission and for a list of other guides in the Values & Visions series and ordering information, email your name and mailing address to Mary Ann Brussat.