Blog post from Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of Pay it Forward
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Author Catherine Ryan Hyde is the creative force behind the best selling book that became the iconic movie starring Oscar-winner Helen Hunt, Oscar nominee Haley Joel Osment, and two-time Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey. Below, Catherine shares how one act of kindness in her own life sparked her creative idea that has since inspired the world to PAY IT FORWARD.
The year was 1978. I was driving my car, an aging, miserably-maintained Datsun (translation, for younger people: Nissan) in a bad neighborhood at night. I was alone.
Not a great idea, I know, but I lived in that bad neighborhood, which narrowed my options considerably.
I was young in 1978. I had this theory when I was young. I thought it was cheaper just to drive your car and not take it to the mechanic. People laugh, but it made perfect sense to me. Mechanics cost money. You don’t go, you save money. Right? It’s one of those theories that works until the day it doesn’t.
This was that day.
I reached the stop sign at the end of the freeway ramp, put my foot on the brake. The engine stalled. But the engine always stalled when I took my foot off the gas. That happens when you never take your car to the mechanic.
Then all the electricity on my car died. Headlights, dash lights…out.
That’s when I noticed the smoke curling up from underneath the dashboard. It didn’t take an expensive mechanic to figure out it was coming through the firewall from the engine compartment, and would soon fill the passenger area where I sat.
When you’re in a bad neighborhood late at night, you feel a powerful incentive to stay in your car with the doors locked. Until the car fills up with smoke. This might very well be the textbook definition of “between a rock and a hard place.”
I jumped out.
I looked up to see two men, two total strangers, running in my direction. One was carrying a blanket.
Many thoughts danced in my head. The first? I never made out a will. Then I realized it didn’t matter, because I had nothing to leave to anybody anyway. Except the car. Which was on fire. Probably other thoughts danced as well. One thought I’m sure did not dance: the crazy idea that they might be coming to my rescue was nowhere on the list.
The men opened my hood, and one put out the fire using only the blanket and his bare hands.
A pause for emphasis. His bare hands. My fire. Isn’t that a fascinating combination between total strangers? I thought so, too.
Right around the time they got the fire out, the fire department showed up. I have no idea who called them. Apparently someone going by on the freeway behind us had seen the trouble I was in.
Now, I would call the fire department for a stranger. I hope most of us would. But would I lean my upper body into their flaming engine compartment? Put out their fire with my bare hands?
That, of course, is the $64 question.
There wasn’t much left for the firefighters to do. They showed me how the fire started (not interesting) and explained what would have happened if it hadn’t been put out (not happy, but interesting).
Though we don’t like to think in these terms as we drive, a car is much like a Molotov cocktail. It’s container of flammable liquid, with a fuse (fuel line). The only real difference is that you don’t pick up the car and throw it.
That’s when I realized those men might’ve saved more than just my car, and might’ve put their own lives at risk to do so.
I turned to thank them, but they’d already packed up and driven away. In the confusion of talking to the fire department, they’d left.
What do you do with a favor that big if you can’t pay it back?
I’ve had people ask, “So, if they hadn’t stopped that night, the whole Pay It Forward thing never would have happened?”
I’ll take it a step further. If they hadn’t left without saying goodbye, there never would have been a Pay It Forward novel. And without the novel there wouldn’t have been the movie, the foundation, the movement. If they’d stayed around, I would’ve gotten their names and sent them a Christmas card every year for the rest of our natural lives. And that might have felt like enough.
But they left.
Amazingly, I was able to get the car fixed. And I went back to driving the freeways. But something had changed.
Suddenly I had one eye on the side of the road, looking for someone broken down, knowing that when I saw such a person I would stop.
That act of kindness changed me.
So what would I say to those two men if I could?
A simple message: “Look what you started.”
Kindness is contagious. Let’s start something.