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Pay It Forward and Good Karma

Homeless in Ottawa, December 2009
Homeless in Ottawa, December 2009

A few years ago, I had a deep conversation with a religious co-worker. “But… if you don’t believe in God,” she asked, “how do you decide what’s good or bad?”

I am the first one to admit I don’t own a copy of the very much sought-after Life for Dummies – An Instruction Manual. Yet, even if my motto is “no gods, no masters,” I have a conscience, this wonderful aptitude that assists in distinguishing right from wrong.

Some religious people do extremely immoral things and some atheists are complete saints. And vice-versa, mind you. Basically, believing in God (or in a god) and claiming you are following his will doesn’t necessarily make you a decent human being. If you don’t trust me, check out the infamous Westboro Church.

I don’t know why I don’t believe in God. I’m not even against organized religion (although I very much dislike any kind of proselytism)—it must be nice to find some spiritual comfort in your beliefs, in a community. I just don’t believe. The idea of a god is as abstract to me as the colour red is to a blind person.

But at some level, I do believe in karma.

I think that if you try to be a good person in life it will eventually pay off. I think that actions have consequences, that you reap what you sow.

So I try my best to behave. You know, just in case.

On most days, I think the world is a pretty neat place and that it’s up to us, human beings, to make it ever better. I love random acts of kindness that don’t cost much but make everyone’s life better. You know, helping someone carrying the grocery bags, holding the door, picking up the cane an old man dropped, etc.

I’m not Mother Teresa. I can’t claim my actions are completely selfless since it makes me feel good to help someone and that I hope I will get that help too when I need it.

For instance, I enjoy helping tourists and newcomers because I’ve been in their shoes before and I did get some occasional help when travelling. So it’s only natural I “pay it back”—and yes, deep down I’m hoping someone will reach out as well if I’m in trouble.

Another example? I always feel incredibly awkward giving change to homeless people. What’s a quarter going to do, really? And dropping coins into a hat or a box without even looking at the person sitting on the ground may make me feel virtuous for a second but the feeling doesn’t last. So whenever I have the time, I simply stop for a second. “Hello sir,” I usually said. “I’m going to grab a coffee. Do you want one?” Or if it’s hot, I offer to buy a bottle of water or a soft drink. Every single homeless person I offered accepted gratefully (and I usually throw in a cookie or a small snack). One guy explained me that he rarely went hungry because places like The Mission of the Salvation Army does a good job of providing hot meals. However, these places only open during specific hours and he was getting really thirsty during the day. Through these simple interactions, I learned a bit what it meant to be homeless. And what did it cost me? $2 and a five-minute-long conversation. That’s nothing.

On another note, I enjoy sharing my OCTranspo transfer when I no longer need it. In Ottawa, when you board the bus, you are given a paper transfer valid for 90 minutes. At the end of my trip, I usually hand it to someone about to board with a ticket in hand. It saves them the fare and it doesn’t cost me anything (and I don’t care if OCTranspo doesn’t approve, tickets are expensive in Ottawa!).

I am always amazed to see how supportive Canadians are of various charities and charitable events. When I worked at the office, United Way’s annual campaigns were a big deal. Most people I know contribute to charities or volunteer regularly. It has encouraged me to do the same—I support Kiva, an online lending platform connecting online lenders to entrepreneurs.

But I am always looking for new small ways to “pay it forward”… so, what do you do for “good karma”?

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