Paying It Forward

Sarah Richards
May 29, 2016

Paying It Forward

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here,lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life—

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room,
when you turn around?[i]

William Stafford’s poem helps us think about the blessings we have to give: “will you ever bring a better gift for the world than the breathing respect that you carry…right now?” And it helps us think about the blessings we have, “What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?”

When you turn around – that’s the key, sometimes we have to get a “new glimpse;” a different view of who and where we are in order to recognize the blessings we have been given, and those we have to give. Recognizing blessings—otherwise known as gratitude–is of course a matter of interpretation, and it is also a frame of mind.

Classics scholar and author Margaret Visser explains it like this:

The word gratitude stands for the process—freely undertaken and therefore hard to pin down with definitions and generalized explanations—by which a person’s attitude changes. It marks, first, the move from the perception of meaning to an emotional response to it—a feeling that seeks expression.[ii]

This month’s Soul Matters essay illustrates that turning around, that change in attitude:

A contributor writes, “I guess after plan A fails, I need to remember there’s a whole alphabet.” It’s not just our friend who needs help remembering that “there’s a whole alphabet” out there; it’s all of us. We all get stuck in wanting things a certain way. We all, at times, focus so intently on the few things going wrong that we completely miss the dozens of things that are going right. Tunnel vision too often takes over our days.

For our Unitarian Universalist faith, this is the central tragedy of the human condition. We respect those who frame our problem as sin and tainted souls, but it’s nearsightedness that our religion is most worried about. For us “a life of blessing” is less about securing eternal reward or forgiveness; it’s more about widening our view.

And there’s a lot at stake when it comes to this wider view [the essay continues]. When the world seems stingy to us, we are stingy to others. Those who feel blessed have little trouble sharing blessings with others. Our tradition takes this calculus seriously. As UU minister, Rev. Don Wheat, puts it “The religious person is a grateful person, and the grateful person is the generous person.[iii]

And apparently, the generous person is also the grateful person, as illustrated in a story from my colleague Jeffrey Lockwood:

He was at the airport in Moscow, when he heard PA announcements in Russian—which he didn’t understand. He says,

I grew panicky as I realized that there was no chance of figuring out which announcement concerned my flight. Staring desperately at my boarding pass, I realized that all I had to do was find a Russian with a matching flight number and follow him. To my right was a morose old fellow whose pass was tucked into the pocket of his threadbare suit coat. To my left was salvation.

A pretty teenager had her boarding pass stuck in the book she was reading, and the first two digits of her flight number were the same as mine. Hoping to see the numbers hidden by the edge of the page, I carefully leaned over. Sensing my movement, she turned to look at me. I pointed hopefully at my boarding pass and then at hers. To my relief, she immediately understood. But we’d attracted the attention of her parents and younger brother. When she explained my situation, her mother smiled warmly and launched into what I took to be an offer to help. I nodded, correctly guessing that I’d been temporarily adopted.

When our flight was announced, the mother leapt to her feet and grasped me by the elbow. She ushered me toward the gate, shouting directions to the others, as the boy grabbed my backpack and the girl and her father hauled the rest of the luggage. The mother pushed through the crowd, returning scowls with her own glare and dragging me along until we’d boarded the bus. Once at the plane, I thanked her profusely, using one of the few Russian words I knew. She seemed to thank me in return. But why would she be grateful?

One of the great blessings of travel is to be put in a position of asking help from others, to be genuinely needful of strangers. Our illusion of self-reliance evaporates as the unexpected and the unfamiliar merge into vulnerability. We offer the gift of authentic need, the opportunity for deep trust. We express to another person the most humanizing cross-cultural phrase: “Please, help me.[iv]

This is the thing about gratitude—it is an acknowledgement of dependency—blessings are unearned gifts, after all. William Murry writes, As a Humanist I am sometimes asked “To whom or what are you grateful? My initial response is that gratitude is a state of mind, an attitude toward life, and it does not need to have an object. On the other hand, I am grateful to the many people whose lives have touched mine, to a prolific nature that has created all life, including mine, and to the great good fortune [blessings] that has been mine in so many ways. When I stop to think about all that I am grateful for, I begin with my family, my wife, three sons and four grandchildren, as well as my parents, deceased now for many years. I am grateful for their love, their support and encouragement, and I am grateful to them simply for being the persons they are or were. I am grateful for life itself, for good health, for having had work that I have enjoyed and found rewarding, for friends and acquaintances who have enriched my life, for teachers from whom I have learned, including those I know only through their writings. But I also feel gratitude to all those farmers and workers on whom we depend for our food, our homes, our clothing and the other material things that make life more pleasant and comfortable. The list of people on whom each of us is dependent for what we have and who we are is very long indeed. And it even includes our forebears and the discoverers, scientists, medical researchers and inventors who made our high standard of living possible. We are dependent on countless people over countless years.[v]

I invite you to take a moment to think about a person, an experience, a place, an organization, something or someone who you feel blessed by, and if you’d like, fill in the first two blanks on the cover of your order of service: __________________________ blesses me by_________________________.

So, now that we have recognized a blessing and feel gratitude, what’s next? Visser writes,

A person watching and aware of another’s kindly actions and motives in relation to himself takes a further step and, similarly well-wishing, acts upon what he has seen; he moves, most specifically, from receiving to giving something back. Why he should imitate his benefactor’s action in this manner will remain inexplicable until gratitude is taken into account. From the smallest event that elicits a felt “thanks” to an appreciation of kindness that totally opens someone’s heart to another, gratitude is a transcending movement, one that “rises to the occasion.”….”Transcendence” is moving from one dimension to two, and then from two dimensions to three. The giving, gratitude, and return of gifts or favours, when they are offered freely, respectfully, and in thankfulness, are ritual and deeply felt markers of these pivotal moments. The circumference may then become a movement, spiraling upwards. It opens out, rises above, and crosses the boundaries of human social structures, even those that may serve to define our society and its culture. A moving spiral of giving replaces the static boundary line enclosing those “in” and excluding those “out.”[vi]

Wow—I love that image, the transcendence of gratitude; a sort of infinite spiral of interconnection – feeling blessed, turning around and giving blessings. The interdependent web of all generosity…. The return of the favor follows gratitude, then. For humanist UU Murry, “

Gratitude is a primal religious affection and an important way to experience the fullness of life. To be grateful for the gift of life, the bounty of the earth, the joy of love and human encounters is, I believe, a rich part of what it means to be religious. It is this fundamental sense of gratitude, not beliefs or doctrines, that divides truly religious people from non-religious people… It has been said that religion begins with thanksgiving and ends in service. When we are truly grateful we will want to share our good fortune [blessings] with others and do what we can to enable others, too, to have much for which to be grateful.[vii]

And what happens when we want to share our blessings with those who have blessed us, but we can’t—the foreign traveller who made his plane because of the kindness of others expressed gratitude, but didn’t get to return the favor. You can say grace before eating, but the farm laborer, and for that matter, the chicken who produced the egg, or the pig whose flesh became the bacon – direct reciprocity isn’t possible. This is where “paying it forward” comes in. As the anonymous Soul Matters author notes, “To pay someone back for a blessing or gift accomplishes little more than evening the score. The concept of paying it forward changes everything. Suddenly the blessings in our life are sources of abundance rather than sources of debt.[viii]” I think this is what Visser means when she says the two dimensions of gratitude become three—returning the favor to someone or something different from its origin. Last month after the closing worship at the UU Regional Assembly in St. Paul, I asked to ride with anyone going to the airport. Turns out no one was going at that time—but then a local couple gave me a ride out to the airport and pointed out the places of interest on the way. They explained that fifteen years ago, when they were at the General Assembly in Cleveland, a couple of UUs they didn’t know gave them a ride to the airport, and they were delighted to pay it forward. Other examples sent to me on Facebook: his stepmother’s kindness inspires the parenting of a stepdad; motorists who had received help when their truck broke down, did the same for other stranded travelers later that day…

I invite you now to think of how you bless something or someone, and if you wish, fill in the blanks on your Order of Service: I bless ____________________ by______________________________________________.

Paying a blessing forward doesn’t always take the same form it was received—how can civilians “pay it forward” to the soldiers who have sacrificed in their name? Our Memorial Day prayer reminds us that beyond expressions of gratitude, we can be there for the wounded, and “with our bare hands, out of full hearts, with all our intelligence
[we can] create the peace.[ix]

This kind of paying it forward depends on corporate recognition of blessing, and corporate/community returning of the favor. The image of the spiral of giving, gratitude, and return of gifts or blessings includes not only personal “attitude of gratitude” and generous actions, but also networks and communities whose visions and missions are based in gratitude and generosity. According to Murry, “Gratitude drives away feelings of resentment and despair and transforms us into generous and large-souled persons.[x]”—the same can be said for groups… like congregations!

A few recent examples: I and several CUF members attended last week’s year-end celebration of the Carbondale Interfaith Council—the Fellowship has been an active member for many of this organization’s 47 years. The CIC sponsors or is involved with a number of events: Spirit of Christmas, Carbondale in Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Community Celebration, and several ongoing initiatives: the Sparrow Coalition, The 3 R’s Program, Race Unity, and others. These are actions that demonstrate a generous and large-souled vision for our community, the transcendent spiral of gratitude evident right here in town.

The Fellowship also has this capacity, in collaboration with others, as in the Interfaith Council, and the UU Action Network of Illinois, and also on its own. Hosting Young Adult AA group meetings and the Chamber Music Society Concerts are examples. I wish that I’d included another “fill in the blanks” on our Order of Service: What and who are ‘we’, this Fellowship blessed by? Well, most obviously all of the members and leaders who have gone before us; but also the UUA, the Region, other UU congregations, interfaith partners, community members and groups… and how do we pay those forward? How do we widen our view? How do we/how are we driving away feelings of resentment and despair, transforming ourselves into a generous and large-souled congregation?

As we consider our current and future “state of the Fellowship” in this afternoon’s Congregational Business Meeting, and beyond, let us keep all of these blessings we have and give in our hearts and minds—more importantly, let us cultivate gratitude, gaining new perspectives to discover blessings previously unrecognized.

Friends, “[w]hat can anyone give us greater than now,
starting here, right in this room,
when we turn around?


[i] Stafford, William, 2015. Reading 75 in Lifting our Voices: Readings in the Living Tradition. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, p. 24.

[ii] Visser, Margaret, 2009.The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 375

[iii] UUA Soul Matters, May 2016, “What does it mean to be a people of blessing?”

[iv] Lockwood, Jeffrey, “To Ask is To Give”

[v] Murry, William, 2011. Becoming More Fully Human: Religious Humanism as A Way of Life, New Haven: Religious Humanism Press, pp. 97-8.

[vi] Visser, p. 375.

[vii] Murry, 2011. p. 98.

[viii] UUA Soul Matters, May 2016, “What does it mean to be a people of blessing?”

[ix] Pescan, Barbara J. 2015. Reading 230 in Lifting our Voices: Readings in the Living Tradition. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, pp. 75-6.

[x] Murry, William, 2007. Reason and Reverence. Boston: Skinner House, pp. 114.