Paying Backward

“The man who never has money enough to pay his debts has too much of something else.” -James Lendall Basford
“Many delight more in giving of presents than in paying their debts.” -Sir Philip Sidney

“Your children will become what you are, so be what you want them to be.” – David Bly

“He looks the whole world in the face for he owes not any man.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


There was a guy that lived in the apartment complex that my parents own and that my sister manages. He moved out, owing quite a bit of rent money. Not an uncommon thing in today’s world, unfortunately. My sister has seen this happen time and time again, and you become a bit cynical about people after a while. You never see them again, or the money they owe you. They don’t look back. They don’t see the impact they make on those who do not get the money they are due. They don’t realize that businesses go under every day because of people like them. They don’t see the other people they leave in their wake, struggling to pay their bills and feed their children. They don’t see the senior citizens who have to cut back because funds are tight. They don’t see the cynicism they breed in this world, because of what they do. Or maybe they do see it all, and figure misery loves company. Maybe they don’t care. But most likely they just keep the blinders on because ignorance is bliss.

But this story is a bit different. This man is different. Years later he gave my sister a call. He wanted to make sure he knew exactly what he owed. He then came back, his sons in tow, and paid it all back. He made good on his commitment.
At the time he originally left, this guy’s life was spinning out of control a bit. His girlfriend was pregnant, and he wasn’t sure he was ready for that. He wasn’t sure he was ready for responsibility of adulthood. He tried to leave it behind. But at some point he decided that was not the kind of man he wanted to be. He became a husband and a father. He decided that he was going to try to be the best he could at both. He wanted to raise sons who were responsible, so he knew he had to show them responsibility. Part of that was righting his wrongs. He made a plan to do that. He told my sister she was the last person he had to pay back. I believe she said it was ten years after he had moved out. He didn’t pay the money back either in secret or in a big display of “how great I am” fanfare. He did it humbly, quietly, in person, facing his past head on. And he did it in front of his sons.
We’ve gotten things jumbled up in our world today. We’re spinners. The story most people believe is thought to be truth. Perception is everything. We don’t want to scratch below the surface and find out that the hunk of gold we possess is actually a rock covered by cheap gold paint. We just cart it around and shout “Hey, look what I’ve got!” As long as people believe it is gold, it is gold. They’ll write stories about it in the paper, more evidence of its truth. We not only fool others, we often convince ourselves. We believe in the facade, instead of the truth that lies beneath.
Forgiveness has also become skewed. We think that because we are forgiven, there is no more responsibility. Example bankruptcy. Our courts say you can wipe out your debt, and go on. In theory it makes sense. People get overwhelmed. They get further and further into debt because they become hopeless. The goal of bankruptcy was to free them from the constant call of their debtors, take the burden and stress off of them, and allow them to begin again. Supposedly with a new attitude of financial responsibility.
But how many people really reformed after a bankruptcy and how many of their debtors suffered in the process? How have their debts impacted our world as a whole? What is the domino effect? How many other individuals suffered to make life easier for this one individual? How often was it appreciated? How often did the person erase the debt in their own mind, with no thought of ever paying it back? Since the court said they didn’t have to pay it back, it no longer existed.
We’re in a season right now where many people expect to create debt. They almost celebrate it. “Yes, we’ll be paying for this for years, but we’re worth it.” “How could we not give our precious children as much as their friends? They deserve it!” “Everyone goes into debt! It’s part of Christmas!”
Oh, how I love Christmas glitz! I love the lights, love the decorations, love Santa, love the faces of children as they experience the magic, love the family pictures and the Christmas letters (really, I do!) But Christmas isn’t about the glitz. It’s all about the gift, the baby. It’s about new beginnings. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about second chances, or third, or hundreds. It’s about us, just as we are, loved and worth sacrifice. It’s about freedom. But freedom that leads us to truth, not to further carnage.
That dad would have been loved and respected by his kids whether he paid his debts or not. Kids grade on a curve. He could have hidden everything from them, said the money side of things had nothing to do with them. He could have forgotten that part of his life and moved on, vowing to not make the same mistakes. But he knew on some level his kids would sense the inconsistency. He didn’t want to teach them that. He wanted a be a good dad. He wanted to be a good man. He wanted to be someone trustworthy in all things.
I’d like to issue a Christmas challenge. Be like this guy. Be different. Be responsible. Be humble. Be thoughtful. The greatest gift you can give your children, the greatest gift you can give anyone, is to be authentic. To live truth. To do what you say you’re going to do. To pay what you owe. To live within your means. To treat others well. To make a plan and fulfill your responsibilities, however long it takes. That’s what is going to make a true impact. Be the gift . Make a merry Christmas with what you’ve got today, not borrowing from the future. It is enough. You are enough. Really….it’s not about the money. Unless it is other people’s money that you are holding onto……or let slip from your hands. Shock a few people. Instead of paying forward, maybe you first need to pay backward. The story of Christmas? That baby was born in a manger to take you out of bondage. Tell the story in how you live.
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