Apr 12

Let a Spark Start a Fire

In Brief—The act of doing a good deed without the expectation of praise or payment can change another person or the world for the better. It makes no difference whether the gift is small or large, monetary or intellectual, simply the act of giving freely is one of the greatest forces on Earth. Make it part of your life and practice it as often as you can.


The Power of Altruism—

A young boy forges the first link in a chain of altruism, the spark. Pay It Forward, a tear-jerker with a positive message, is a movie that illustrates the value of giving without the expectation of receiving something in return. Haven’t seen the movie, read the book or seen it on the Internet? Think of it as a spark.

Though they didn’t know it, the spark was lit in me by certain teachers: Ms. Oyster in grade school; Ms. Rebord who taught history in high school; and Professor Smith at UCLA. Though many, teacher or not, have contributed to the person I am today, Page Smith who taught Colonial American History in my first year at UCLA is a good example of how a spark is kindled.

Colonial American History may sound boring, but Page Smith, the author of the definitive work on one of the founding fathers, John Adams, transformed an otherwise banal freshman course into an inspiration for those of us who were paying attention. At the beginning of every class, Professor Smith exposed us to five minutes of subjects that had little to do with colonial history but a great deal to do with growing educated citizens: Philosophy, Literature, Science, the American Constitution.

In the years after graduation from UCLA, my expanded interests led me to study subjects as diverse as the History of Greece and Rome, religion, the French Indochina War and the Selective Service System. I studied law and became an activist lawyer who kept hundreds of young men from being sent to the killing fields of Vietnam. I provided legal and draft counseling to those without at the Los Angeles Free Clinic; I became a speaker for the ACLU. The little spark became a fire.

In later years, as an executive in the television industry, I shared with my staff the bonuses given to executives, feeling that my staff, too, had contributed to the success of the corporation. Today, I am pleased to say that a former member of my staff has paid it forward, and a former member of her staff is now sharing her bonus. Though the other executives were unhappy with my actions, the benefits of paying it forward made it worthwhile for all of us and, maybe, just maybe, the corporate world is a little better for it. Despite that, I often wonder how many of the Wall Street gang who get millions of dollars in bonuses every year share those bonuses with their staff.

After moving to Sweden, I began teaching ceramics to a group of females who may have thought that ceramics would be an interesting activity to try. One of the women was so turned on by my enthusiasm that she is now one of the most successful potters in northern Sweden and attributes her success to my teaching. A spark.

I write occasional comments to the New York Times when an article or situation catches my interest. Some of my comments are well-received by readers while others are largely ignored, but my view is that whether appreciated by many or few, even one person might be moved by what I have to say and a little seed will have been planted that may grow where nothing grew before. A spark.

This little blog may be setting records for putting readers to sleep, and although it violates all the expert advice about brevity, my words and thoughts may kindle a little fire in some readers that can, I hope, lead to a better America. I’m just one old guy who has laid his thoughts out there for consideration. Maybe something I write will strike a spark in a reader. After all, they can’t kill me and eat me.

So even though what you do or say may seem small, do it in the hope that a little seed will grow. Read to your kids every day; they may grow into readers and become genuinely productive citizens who read to their own kids. Write that book; you may be awakening deep emotions in your readers or encouraging a reader to become a writer. Compliment the supermarket checker; it will certainly lighten her day and it could change her life for the better. Vote as if your single vote can change the course of the community or the nation.

A little spark can set the world on fire. Take that chance. Pay it forward.





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  1. I like this a lot, because a spark can start anything, and unless someone makes the spark then nothing may happen. Doing something may be useful on its own as well, but the hope that your action may be a spark for others doubles the satisfaction and may vastly increase its effect. So thanks for your sparks and thanks for your words which again are sparks.

    Now let’s talk about altruism, which I don’t believe exists. At least one definition is that it is a selfless and disinterested act. So when you shared your bonus did you care about how it was received? I believe you hoped it was appreciated or that it paid for a child’s gift or that it was used to pay forward., as your colleague did. I think you weren’t disinterested at all; doing it gave you pleasure of one sort or another.

    Sharing your bonus was a wonderful thing to do. And I can’t believe you were disinterested. I certainly wouldn’t have been.

    So what’s the point? The point is that your post is great and I wholeheartedly endorse it. Just take out the work altruism because there is no such thing. I believe everyone who gives anything has a motive, and that means it isn’t disinterested.

      • Don Bay on April 13, 2015 at 16:44

      I’m not fully in agreement with you on altruism. Using the bonus as an example, I did that out of a sense of fairness, not because I felt it would be appreciated. No doubt it was appreciated, but that didn’t cross my mind…at least, my conscious mind. In that case, after it was done another colleague (who did get a bonus) told me one of the recipients would just drink it up and I shouldn’t have given her anything. My response was that it belonged to her and she could do anything she wanted with it.

      On another occasion, I did the same sort of thing and was told by a third party that the recipient would probably just gamble it away. My response was the same. I have no idea if it was appreciated or not.

      Where we agree is in the case of a person donating money to a university or a municipality in exchange for a building or arena being named for the donor. I even agree that a giver may feel inner warmth from having given a gift anonymously. In that case, the giver’s motive is irrelevant.

      Altruism is defined, among other ways, as an animal crying out an alarm to warn others of danger. Is that not as much self-preservation as it is a benefit to others? Is that altruism? Good philosophical point, though.

  2. great article
    thank you Don!

      • Don Bay on April 13, 2015 at 16:52

      Thanks for the strokes, Shelley. I wrote that piece several months ago, but it seemed appropriate to post it following the four-parter on my years at Fox. My file is full of pieces that stirred me at the time. When I post them will be up to my gut. Maybe they’ll never get posted. We’ll see.

  3. Sorry to take so long to write again. I think you missed my point about altruism because you made my point in your comment. I didn’t say or think that you shared your bonus because you thought it would be appreciated, I said that you were not disinterested. Altruism, by one definition is being disinterested. You were interested in fairness, and therefore it wasn’t altruism. If altruism is disinterest, then you could argue that you give to a nameless charity and don’t care where it goes, but you still want to help someone with something and you feel good about that. So my point is that the giver feels good about giving, or is able to crow about giving or wants equality, etc., etc. The giver always has one motive or another and therefore is not disinterested.

      • Don Bay on April 19, 2015 at 16:08

      You have chosen just one Internet definition of “altruism.” There are others that avoid using the term “disinterested,” Random House Dictionary of the English Language, for example.

      According to the definition you have chosen, altruism doesn’t exist because the donor’s desire for fairness reveals an interest. That being the case, it becomes necessary to look at the motive behind the gift. The motive can be good as in paying a complement without an expectation of gratitude or it can be self-aggrandizing as giving a sum of money in return for the donor’s name being attached to the sports facility built with the donated money.

      But then, the complement benefits only the receiver while the monetary gift of the sports facility benefits many, not just one. Now, we are led to the result of the gift. In this example, the gift of money to which the donor’s name is attached becomes laudable. Thus, the definition you have chosen is the better of the two. I choose to think not.

      I’ll stick with the Random House definition.

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