The Opposite of Payback is...Investment.
My husband David Barash and I have written extensively about revenge, retaliation, and redirected aggression in our recent book, Payback! (Oxford University Press). By now, we all know that the 3Rs create a positive feedback loop of ever greater nastiness. Yet over the summer several things have happened to me that necessitate a comment on the opposite of payback or revenge, that is to say, kindness.
Kindness requires an investment in the future, with no particular expectation of specific returns. Random acts of kindness are the most interesting, as they are frequent, and do not easily fit the "selfish gene" model of causes of human behavior. In theory, random acts of kindness should be selected against, by natural selection, since behavior that costs the actor without any expectation of payoff would not appear to be adaptive, in terms of maximizing evolutionary fitness (reproductive success). Yet I think there is a payoff, only it is not distinct, nor direct. I think that random acts of kindness to strangers raise the level of what I shall cost the ocean of good will. It is rather like the "Sea of Stories" that Salman Rushdie posited in his great children's book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. In Rushdie's work, he imagines that all stories and works of imagination come from a large ocean, filled by a bubbling well of ideas and fantasy. In my world, I imagine an ocean without an input stream. It is an ocean that is filled with good deeds, and it fills up like a savings account upon which anybody can draw. You place a deposit into this ocean, never knowing when you'll need to make a withdrawal. The goodness is simply there to share, and adds a resource to a world otherwise filled with suffering.
I had a series of three experiences this summer that seem pertinent to this idea. The first was in July. I was trying to sell and expensive camera on craigslist, and made an agreement to ship it to a person representing himself as a military man in Iraq. He put money into "Paypal" and I went to ship the camera...to Nigeria. Still, I thought the money was in my paypal account, so I went to the Redmond Pony Express to ask the owner to help me pack and ship it. The owner, Mike Ahn, surprisingly refused! He said it was a scam, and he refused to ship it, even though he stood to make money on the transaction! I have his permission to tell this story publicly, because he saved me from a bad mistake. I called paypal, and they confirmed it was a fraud, a scam, and somebody had been using a fraudulent paypal site. So thanks to Mr. Ahn for his selfless act of great customer service.
Then, a few weeks ago, I was camping and reserved a spot for 2 nights at Lodgepole Campground, near Mt. Rainier, spot #27. One night was fine, then we went on to Rainier directly, and found an unexpected site at the White River Campground. I was just putting in my money for the spot, and a sad young father with two cute little boys said "your must have gotten the last one...". I stopped, thought a minute, and then told him I'd give him Lodgepole 27 so he wouldn't have to take the boys back to Seattle. Several days later I got a lovely thank you note from him, and another story.
The benefactor of my graciousness was walking on the streets of Seattle, and saw an old man struggling to get on a busy bus, but without enough money. So Mr. Lodgepole 27 gave the old man enough money to take the bus.
For some reason, kindness and altruism beget the same, even without a direct personal link. The ocean of good will fills up, and strangers partake. Maybe a scientific reason is that somehow we think that a generous society will eventually help us or our offspring.
Maybe this is "spiritual." I don't know. But I think that it is important to keep in mind that kindness is an act of investing in the future, while payback is an active of revenge or retaliation for the past, which increases the likelihood of nastiness in the future either directly or through redirected aggression. It takes an act of suspended belief to visualize that kindness to strangers can have a beneficent long term payoff, but I think the ocean of goodness is there, if only we look for it and contribute to it.