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.