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Encounters with the Value of Paying It Forward
It could be that I’ve had a run of incredibly good luck. Since setting off three weeks ago to walk across the United States, I’ve encountered generosity that has been nothing short of surprising. It caught me particularly off guard as I traveled through New Jersey, where I came across what a church described as “radical hospitality.”
But it could be more than luck. It could also be that Americans, in general, tend to be a hospitable, generous people. I suspect it’s a little of both.
My journey got off to a rather inauspicious start, what with my first night’s motel shut down by authorities who’d declared it an “unsafe structure,” but the ensuing three weeks have been better than I could have anticipated. The people I’ve met have not only opened the doors to their homes for me, they’ve even sent me off with parting gifts. The whole experience has been humbling. I hope I live long enough to pay all this kindness forward.
A couple of weeks ago I spent two nights in the small town of Clinton, N.J. I stayed there with a couple named Cliff and Rosemarie, and their children Danielle and Tyler. I got in touch with them through someone who had hosted me a few days earlier in Morristown who called Rosemarie as soon as he heard about my plan to go through Clinton. This is a situation that has played out more than once – people I meet along the way take an interest in networking on my behalf to find me places to stay down the road. We could call this, perhaps, transcendental hospitality.
Cliff and Rosemarie made me feel at home as soon as I arrived. We sat in the kitchen, getting to know each other better. A little while later we were all sitting in a comfortable silence, working on our computers. When Tyler, the son, came down and saw his parents and me, he commented, “What is this? Computer lab?”
We laughed. I felt at home. I had known them all of two hours.
I cannot help but compare and contrast this to the Latin American culture I grew up in. Latin Americans may be renowned for their warmth, but I think they’d be more reluctant to take in, and put up for the night, a complete stranger. If you’re a friend of the family, they will take you in and treat you at least as kindly as I have been treated, but I am pretty sure most people would be reluctant to take in someone they don’t know from Adam. There remains a communitarian ethos in America that encourages offering a helping hand to the proverbial, unknown neighbor, a generosity that manifests itself most vividly when disasters strike a community, or in the success of any number of charitable organizations.
I’ve also been struck by people’s openness. The people who have taken me in have striven to make me feel like one of the family. I keep going back to the scene in the kitchen in Clinton. It was so , well, natural, to be there; so effortless. It might be something of a cliché to say that the kitchen is the heart of the home, but it is true. By receiving me in their kitchen, the people I have met have communicated that they want me to be, even if just for one night, a member of their household. In Latin America, I am almost positive, most people would receive me as their guest, if at all, very formally – in the living room.
Another couple I met recently told me that they had just finished hosting a group of distant relatives from Italy and Belgium. The travelers stayed with this couple in Pennsylvania for five weeks. The Belgians – who I gather were in their 20s – commented that they were surprised that they could stay for so long. In Belgium, they said, people might put you up for a night or two, but no one would take you in for such a long period without getting something in return. I don’t know how true that is, but it makes me wonder if the “radical hospitality” I’ve encountered is not just an American value, but a uniquely American value. I’m not saying people from other countries aren’t grateful, but perhaps they are just more used to keeping favors and their repayment within constrained family or community circles. And if this is the case, I wonder why.
The concept of paying favors forward could have something to do with this American trait. I have noticed a common request when expressing my gratitude to my benefactors. I’m always told something along the lines of “when your turn comes, be nice to someone else.” In fact, it’s an idea that goes back to America’s beginnings. Benjamin Franklin once explained the concept in a letter:
“I do not pretend to give such a Sum; I only lend it to you. When you [...] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.”
As I travel through different regions of the country, I will continue to explore this value. The next stage of my journey takes me into the self-professed home of hospitality itself. I officially crossed the Mason-Dixon Line on Monday and I cannot wait to see if “Southern hospitality” lives up to its reputation. I will say, the Northerners have set the bar high.