Like most reasonably charitable people, I’ve always believed in “paying it forward” even before the book and movie made the concept famous and it got its own foundation. But lately, I have wondered how to draw the line between doing the right thing for others, while still leaving time and energy for my family and myself. A homeless couple approaching me for a place to stay prompted the reevaluation. Since the woman was pregnant, I felt like I was turning away the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. But, my fear of a bedbug infestation, and a sense that the couple weren’t what they seemed, stayed my natural generosity. (The last place they had stayed supposedly had bedbugs, and I was very aware of how easily the little bugs transfer from clothing and belongings to new digs – in this case, my house.) So I didn’t invite the questionable homeless couple to bunk at my house. Despite her apparent pregnancy, and their cute little dog, I decided to trust my con-meter, and walk away.
But all the way home, I felt guilty, despicable, and low. Was I inherently selfish?
Later, as I discussed it with a friend, we developed a long list of all the people who I support emotionally and physically. Perhaps, I had taken “paying it forward” a bit too far. Lately, I have been struggling with exhaustion, in part from a sense that I never had time to do the things that really mattered to me. After reviewing my schedule, it turned out that I was trying to support more people and activities than was possible for me — at least if I wanted to have any energy left for my own projects. So, I reviewed my commitments, evaluated where I really felt I was making a contribution (the English as a second language classes I teach, for example) and the situations that were draining, but didn’t seem to appreciably improve the world. After that analysis, I cut some charitable activities out of my schedule (for example: shoveling horse manure out of the corral did help the horses, but it took an hour to get there and an hour to get back back, and I was physically exhausted afterwards.)
Even though I’ve trimmed my planned activities, I will continue to try and brighten salesclerks days with some light friendly banter and a smile. And I’ll happily petsit for my neighbors, or share my cookies with my elderly neighbor who loves cookies but doesn’t bake. And I left a core group of “pay it forward” activities in my schedule. I don’t want to stop saving the world, but I want to save myself as well.