Paying it backward: An exercise in self-reflection and gratitude

What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.  – Pericles (495 BC-492 BC)

The concept of “paying it forward” has been popularized in recent years: We strive to respond to a kindness or support we have received by being kind to someone else. But do we pause often enough to thank those whose original support inspired us in the first place?

The following forum exercise demands we do just that. The steps are as follows:

  • In your next forum meeting, ask each member to share the story of a person who had a big, positive impact on their life, but whom they have never properly thanked.
  • If time allows (perhaps during a retreat), give members time to compose a letter that they could actually deliver to the person they’ve selected. Ask each member to commit to deliver their message by some future forum meeting, perhaps three months in the future to allow adequate time to make the connection.
  • Members deliver their messages in one of the following ways, depending on the circumstances: in a personal meeting, by telephone, or via handwritten letter or email. If the person is no longer alive, the forum member’s thoughts and feelings could be shared with a surviving spouse or children.
  • You may even hold members accountable. In the same way members can be fined for arriving late to a forum meeting, failure to complete the assigned task could require a similar penalty.
  • At the designated, future forum meeting, members discuss:
    • The story of delivering their message of gratitude
    • Reflections on what this act meant to the recipient and to them
    • How can I pay it forward? How can I be a better role model, mentor, or booster so that others can benefit in the same way that I have?
    • Inspired by this experience, do we want to do this again in the future, each choosing another person to whom we want to express gratitude in this way?