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Sunday, July 1, 2001

Having worked all day yesterday, I don't feel right about not working today. That's because I have just as much to do now as I did when I quit yesterday afternoon. That tells me I have to keep going until I don't have more to do than I have time left to do it.

But I'm reading this book. It's No Ordinary Time, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, about Franklin and Eleanor and the home front during the war years. I'm just up to September 1940, so I have a long way to go, but it's such a hopeful story at this point. What's hopeful is the evidence that there are people who hold the general welfare in high regard and are willing to do what they can to help make things better. Eleanor Roosevelt might not always have been right, but you could count on her to be on the side of right.

Anyway, I can't read this book in bed, because it's too heavy and bulky, so I have to be no time. If I can't find to make time during the day, even when there seems a few minutes on a Sunday, where is the hope? So I took a little time to sit back and read.

And there was also this movie on TV that I wanted to see. I read the book last winter and made a big deal about it (again with the "hopeful" stuff). I wanted to see if a big, impossible idea could be made into a film that makes sense. And it did, to me, because I wanted it to.

Pay It Forward, as a book, a movie and a concept, is ripe for the sneers of cynics everywhere. It's an improbable dream, to think that a worldwide movement of people helping each other can so easily cross the boundaries of race, economic class, even sheer distance. It's a sop to the humanist sucker (like me) who wants to believe that what we see (in a person, in the world) isn't necessarily what's really there.

It's hard to break down cynicism. I think that's why, unlike the novel, the film is set in Las Vegas, where the good in humanity has to outshine all those flashing lights and broken dreams. You set yourself up for disappointment when you let yourself believe that people have better natures, waiting to be exposed. I know, because I do it every day, and I'm often disappointed.

The characters in the story are flawed but essentially decent and sincere. The movie demonstrates how hard it can be to take people at face value. Only when you've allowed yourself to look at them more closely, and see the currents that drive them off course, and the burdens that weigh them down, can you really connect with them, and allow yourself to trust in their hearts.

And you might have to lower your expectations. Often the only way for people to exist within each other's lives is by giving ground. Tolerance of the weaknesses that keep people from being all they want to be is a gift. Like forgiveness, it means making room for the likelihood that your own world view doesn't encompass all of life's possibilities.

This is a lot easier to say than to put into practice, which is why a child leads the movement. He sees that people can sometimes be good in spite of themselves, and he gives them the chance to show it. He gets frustrated and hurt, but by showing kindness where none is asked for or expected, he sets something in motion. The people whose lives he changes go on to change the lives of others.

In the end, that's the message. You can make the world a better place, but not all of it, all at once. You have to do it day by day, one person at a time. And you don't have to look very far to find someone to help. You just have to open yourself to the possibilities and act on them. The first step is just listening.

blooming in July

Pink and white blossoms.

In my darker moments, I think that a movie like Pay It Forward contributes to the cynicism in the world, rather than conquering it. But anyone who's likely to react that negatively to a positive message probably isn't going to see it anyway. In fact, that person is the one most likely to be surprised and affected by someone reaching out to them. By embracing the cynics, I give them one less thing to be cynical about.

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