Pay It Forward Day: Q&A With the Woman Who Started It All

By Tara MacIsaac, Epoch Times
April 28, 2016 Updated: May 6, 2016

April 28 is the ninth annual Pay It Forward Day. ‘Pay It Forward’ is a book by Catherine Ryan Hyde, published in 1999 in which a young boy performs an act of kindness for three people, asking only that they “pay it forward” by performing acts of kindness for three more people.

Catherine Ryan Hyde, "Pay It Forward" author. (Ross Land/Getty Images)
Catherine Ryan Hyde, “Pay It Forward” author. (Ross Land/Getty Images)

The book was adapted into a movie starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment in 2000, and the concept of “paying it forward” entered the real world, spreading kindness far and wide. 

Hyde started the Pay It Forward Foundation to foster the movement, and a supporter in Australia, Blake Beattie, started Pay It Forward Day. 

Epoch Times asked Hyde to reflect on the great impact of her simple idea. 

Epoch Times: Where did the inspiration for your book “Pay It Forward” come from? Was there a seminal moment in which you thought of spreading kindness this way? (In interviews you have said that it started when your car caught fire and two strangers helped you. But perhaps you can elaborate on how this act of kindness stood out to you and spawned the idea of doing something for others.)

Catherine Ryan Hyde: I’m not sure if you saw the video in which I tell the more complete version of the story:

I think the most I can add to the video is this: As I began stopping for stranded motorists (and other acts in the service of paying that debt), I noticed that we are often quite suspicious of strangers. That, basically, we are afraid of each other. I wanted to create a fictional scenario (in the book) that allowed the Pay It Forward concept to spread so people understood that these are truly selfless acts of giving—in other words, that there are no strings attached.

The media played a big role in the book. And then… life imitated art. And you could have knocked me over with a feather.

Epoch Times: As you were writing did you think or hope that this concept would jump off the page and into the real world?

Ms. Hyde: I was an extremely underpublished author at the time. I’d had two books published by a very small press and no one had ever heard of me. My goal was simply to see it in a bookstore some day!

I certainly never thought I was powerful enough to make a real-world change. I did have a wild fantasy that someone might read the book and play at paying it forward before forgetting again. For example, that maybe I would hear about someone reading the book and then feeding strangers’ parking meters. But I never really thought it would happen and I certainly never expected it to last.

I certainly never thought I was powerful enough to make a real-world change.

When I did start to see real-world acts, I thought it was the book and movie publicity driving it. But it’s more than 16 years later—what could possibly be driving it now? It seems to have planted its own roots. I can’t think of any other explanation. And that was the part I never would have imagined.

Epoch Times: What do you see as the purpose of art? (In literary theory, there’s talk about “art for art’s sake” vs. art as a means for uplifting people’s morals or inspiring people to do good, for example.)

Ms. Hyde: For me, it’s about communication. I have ideas, thoughts, questions in my head. If I don’t write them down, they are alone in there forever. If I do, and someone reads them, I can actually get them asking a question with me, or get them thinking with me about something I find baffling.

If we all want to live in a kinder world, and kindness is easy, why don’t we just do it?

For example, with Pay It Forward, this was the baffling thought: We all say we want to live in a kinder world. And it’s not hard to be kinder. It would certainly be hard to change the whole world from night to day, but to wake up in the morning and add kindness to the world is easy. So the question is, If we all want to live in a kinder world, and kindness is easy, why don’t we just do it? Why doesn’t somebody just start?

The amazing thing about writing the book is that I have actually been able to encourage a good bit more communication about how we treat each other and how we can do better.

Epoch Times: Many people have been inspired by “Pay It Forward” to be kind to others. Could you tell us about any particular stories of people paying it forward that stand out to you?

Ms. Hyde: You know, there have been so many. And so many are so big and sweeping, and ongoing. And yet I still keep thinking about a note from a second grader who wrote to me in 2000, shortly after his teacher had read him a newspaper article about the book.

He told me he wanted to visit a nursing home and talk to the people there because he thought they were lonely. Nobody has really topped that. At least, not for me. It’s just so incredibly pure.

Epoch Times: Was there a particular moment you realized what kind of effect your book was having? (Maybe a first instance of someone paying it forward that you heard about.)

Ms. Hyde: Two moments.

First, in the year 2000 when someone sent me a link to the story in the Buffalo News about the lost car payment. A woman had written a check for half of what she owed for her car payment. But on the way to the post office she lost it.

There was no return address on the envelope, so the couple who found it had to open it to see to whom it should be returned. When they saw the note apologizing for the short payment and asking for more time, they wrote a check for the other half and then mailed it in. And they contacted the woman to tell her what they had done. They had just seen the movie Pay It Forward the previous night.

Second, when I was out on the book tour—my first tour city—and someone in a bookstore came up to me and said, “I will.” That’s when I realized it had jumped off the page. I just didn’t know how much yet. (“I will” is not in the movie, but is a line of commitment from the end of the book.)

Epoch Times: What would you like to communicate to the public leading up to this year’s Pay It Forward Day?

Ms. Hyde: I’d like to encourage people to go forward in a state of openness. In other words, go out into the day with the idea that you will watch the people around you to see what they might need.

Sitting in a room and thinking up a way to help others is all well and good, but the real magic (in my opinion) is when you pay attention to the needs of those around you. We’ve taught ourselves not to do that, I think, because there is so much need and so little of us to go around.

But if you’re open to doing three acts of kindness, you won’t be overwhelmed. And if you go into your day in the spirit of spontaneously helping others, I contend that you have already changed the world.

You have changed the self you are bringing into the world that day, which is where all change begins.

Epoch Times: Could you please tell us a little about your visit to the White House?

Ms. Hyde: I was invited to the White House by President Bill Clinton to attend a screening of the film in the White House theater. I brought him a copy of the book, which I was able to personally put into his hands. (I asked him if he had known he was a cameo character in the book. He had not! But he later read it and wrote me a nice letter.)

There was a buffet. A number of Americorps people were there that night. We got to talk to him after the screening (I was there with several of the movie people, including the producer and director) and take pictures with him. It was a pretty Earth-shaking experience, and one I had not seen coming.

Epoch Times: How does it make you feel to see your book have such a widespread, positive effect?

Ms. Hyde: Sometimes I feel almost as though I’m used to it. It’s been happening for about 16 years. I sometimes tell people, “You can’t walk around for 24 hours a day being astonished.”

It becomes something that operates in the background. Then other times I’ll be watching TV and hear some celebrity say those three words when I wasn’t expecting it. And I’ll think, Whoa. How did that get from the inside of my head to all these public places?

Then the amazement breaks through and it bowls me over just like it did at the start.