Finding Our Altruism (as Opposed to Never Losing It)


In the mid-1990s, when I first wrote the novel Pay It Forward—the adult version on which the movie was based—I was laboring under a misperception about humans. I thought that as we grow up, we lose our altruism. And by lose I mean irreparably lose. I thought we started out youthful, glowing, and filled with kindness and goodness. Then, somewhere between kindergarten and high school, all that good stuff was quite thoroughly stomped or kicked out of us.

That’s why I made Trevor, the character who changes the world through simple acts of kindness, twelve years old. I thought this was something a grownup couldn’t—or at least wouldn’t—do. I thought grownups would come up with an idea like Pay It Forward, and then sit down with a pen and a legal tablet and list all the reasons why it would never work. Then, having talked themselves out of even trying, they would be relieved of the burden of changing the world. I could imagine the happy sighs of adult relief.

I was wrong.

I quickly learned that I was wrong by watching altruism wake up in grownups when they read the book or saw the movie. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to take credit for anyone else’s altruism. And I’m not suggesting that lots of other factors aren’t at work inspiring people at the same time. But one conclusion is inescapable: You can’t awaken what’s irreparably gone. You can only awaken that which is merely sleeping.

Now I have a different theory about losing our altruism as we grow. I still  think we often lose it. But more the way we lose our car keys.

I’m not a psychologist, a scientist, or a researcher of any kind. I’m just a fiction author who’s been alive for a while and has spent much of that time observing human nature.

Here’s what I’ve seen.

As we grow, we want to fit in. We want to be loved and accepted. We want to avoid criticism. We want to learn about the world, so we can more safely make our way in it. So we look to those around us for signals.

Parents and teachers may not realize the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) messages they send regarding the world. Sometimes we feel overpowered and overwhelmed, unable to change the things that trouble us. We may not want to say—or even think—that we just don’t have the energy to try. So instead we pass a message on to kids: “That’s just the way the world is.” Kids are like sponges for knowledge of the world. It’s their job to soak it up. Tell them you can’t change anything, and they’ll not only believe you, they’ll prove you right.

How much of the world as we know it is a mass act of self-fulfilling prophecy?

At a certain age (in my own experience it was around middle school) we notice that the people around us are getting more… for lack of a better word… cool. We may have a spontaneous thought related to changing a situation through kindness, but by that age we’ve become careful about filtering what we say. We look at those around us, and they don’t seem to champion kindness. They don’t seem to think kindness is cool. We don’t stop being kind, in my opinion. We stop openly expressing it. We bury it down where no one can see. After a few years of that, it becomes the proverbial ring of car keys. We haven’t seen it for a while, and often wouldn’t quite know where to locate it if we tried.

But this is great news, in my opinion. We still have everything we need. We just have to do a little finding. And we have to get braver about saying the things we know are right. Even if the people around us aren’t saying the same.

My thoughts on social courage have evolved quite a bit lately. I used to think people should just push their way through fear and speak their minds, placing far less importance on any resulting criticism. I’m still not against that plan. But I think I was not taking into account how deep-seated these fears can be. The fear of being ostracized is a very primal thing. Again, I’m no expert, but it seems to trace back to that ancient tribal societal structure: To be forced out of the group is to die. That’s a big one. So maybe I was being dismissive to suggest people just buck up and speak. Maybe a better answer is to create safer spaces for people to speak. Surround them with the safety of knowing they are an accepted part of their society even when expressing new ideas.

Like radical kindness.

Which leads me to the upcoming book release that I hope might make a difference.

I am pleased—thrilled, actually—to announce that fourteen years after the publication of my novel Pay It Forward, Simon & Schuster will soon (August 19, 2014) release Pay It Forward: Young Readers’ Edition, edited for middle grade students.

One of my very few regrets in my career involved the age-appropriate “rating” of the original book. I wrote exclusively for adults at the time. I never imagined anyone but adults reading it. So it contains a fair amount of adult language and material. The American Library Association included it on its “Best Books for Young Adults” list in 2001, a stamp of approval for students 12-18. But parent sensitivity being what it is, most teachers won’t use it in the classroom unless students are at least 14 or 15. Which, let’s face it, is past the age when we’ve misplaced those altruistic car keys.

What if a book like this new Pay It Forward edition made its way into middle school curriculum just about everywhere? What if students were reading it and talking about it at that crucial age, the one during which the push is on to be “cool”? It might create a safer space for altruism. Students might be more comfortable expressing their feelings about kindness. They would have more support for altruistic thinking and actions.

Instead of having to relocate their altruism as adults, what if the next generations never had to put it in hiding in the first place?

What would happen when that generation moved into the workforce, the polling place, the government, the teaching professions? How much would their openly-displayed altruism change the world?

I don’t know, and I don’t know if anyone can accurately say they know. But we may be about to find out. And whatever happens, that can only be a good thing.

Photo by Christian