Boomerangs, Donuts and the Joy of Giving

One day I saw an old Australian aborigine with a boomerang. I watched with amazement as he threw the boomerang and it slowly circled around and returned back to him time after time. After several throws, he began tossing it harder and harder. I could see the frustration building on his face. Finally, I went up to him and asked if anything was wrong. He replied, “Well, it’s time to get a new boomerang but I can’t seem to get rid of this old one. The harder I try to throw it away, the faster it comes back to me.”

Actually, I made up that story, but I think there is an important message to learn from it. When we give to others, our good works tend to come back around to us. In the popular vernacular, we might say, “What goes around, comes around,” or that’s good “karma.” But I like what someone once called it, “The Law of the Boomerang.” But regardless of how we describe it, the principle is the same. Think about it. How many times have we done something nice for someone and then shortly thereafter they do something nice for us in return? For example, you might take dinner into someone who is sick or just moved into the neighborhood and they return your dish topped with cookies. It works in reverse, too. If you want to get punched in the gut, you don’t have to go ask someone to do it. Simply walk up and punch them, and invariably they will punch you in return. But I like the positive illustrations better.

In the Christmas movie classic, It’s a Wonderful Life,[i] George Bailey had lived a life of giving. But George experienced some hard times. In the end, though, when George needed help, all those townsfolk he had helped over the years came back to help him – in spades, making him “the richest man in town” – not just in money but in those things that matter most: family, friendship and love. Here‘s the closing scene:

Sometimes The Law of the Boomerang works indirectly. Sometimes someone does something nice for us, and instead of returning the kind deed to the giver, we pass it forward to someone else, or “pay it forward” as the movie by the same name described it. But I believe that even if we pay it forward, that kind deed, in some form or another, will eventually come back to us. Here is the scene from Pay It Forward[ii] that explains the concept that could change the world:

I love Trevor McKinney’s [Haley Joel Osment] response when the doubters complain that his theory won’t work – that the idea is too utopian. “So?” is Trevor’s response. Do we respond similarly when someone (or even ourselves) challenges our notions of helping others?

But I have discovered a corollary to The Law of the Boomerang known as The Corollary of the Donut, and if we don’t understand and put this corollary into practice, The Law of the Boomerang will be of little force or effect. I first learned about The Corollary of the Donut when I was a cub scout. Our den took a field trip to an observatory at the University of Utah to look through a large telescope at different planets and constellations. There was one constellation I will never forget. The guide focused the telescope on a group of stars that looked like a donut—these stars literally formed a circle with a hole in the middle. The guide then told us there was something extra else special about this constellation. She told us, if you looked directly at the donut of stars, they would disappear. You wouldn’t be able to see them. So you had to focus on the edges and through your periphery vision, you would be able to see the stars. I can’t explain scientifically why it worked that way, but it did. What does any of this have to do with giving? You see, if we give to another with the sole goal of getting that person to give us something in return, it’s like looking directly at that donut constellation and having those stars disappear from our view. We generally won’t get much in return. True giving, then, requires that we give out of love or friendship and not with the hope of getting something back.

I am a big Michael J. Fox fan and one of my favorites of his movies is Greedy.[iii] In the movie, rich Uncle Joe is getting old and all the relatives want a piece of his empire. [Spoiler Alert!] When Uncle Joe gets ill, and tells the family that he is no longer rich, but in debt, the family abandons him – except for Danny [Michael J. Fox], who offers to take care of him. Danny and his wife have Joe move in with them into their small apartment, and even offer to let Joe have their bedroom. But then, this happens:

In short, this is a great example of how The Law of the Boomerang and The Corollary of the Donut work. All of Uncle Joe’s nieces and nephews (but Danny) were being nice to Uncle Joe only because they wanted an inheritance. But Danny, who was kind and giving to Uncle Joe only because he loved and cared about him, ended up getting it all.

So how do we insure that our giving is motivated by the right reasons? Since we just celebrated Christmas, let me suggest you try the Santa Claus theory. I love Santa Claus, but not just because of the great presents he brings me every year. I love Santa because he understands and gives in accordance with The Corollary of the Donut. He gives because he wants us to be happy, not because he is expecting anything from us in return. I mean, even if we wanted to do something nice for Santa in return for what he gives us, what can we really do? He delivers his presents in the middle of night after we’ve gone to bed. If we didn’t find those presents under the tree or in our stockings on Christmas morning, we would never know he had even been there. We sometimes make a meager effort to thank him in the only way we can think of—by leaving him some milk and cookies by the fireplace on Christmas Eve, but that pales in comparison to what he does for us. He literally works all year long to bring us some happiness one day of the year. And judging by the pictures of Santa that I’ve seen, he probably could do without all those cookies and milk.

So why does he do it?  I have no explanation other than he must truly love what he does, for, at least with me, it isn’t because I have been especially good. I’m sure all the thanks Santa needs is to imagine the looks on our faces as we find the present we so desperately wanted waiting for us under the tree on Christmas morning. Why can’t we be more like Santa in our giving to others? Why can’t we have those same motivations that he has? Why are we so leery of the Santa Claus theory?

How would we react if we found that Santa Claus couldn’t handle his normal Christmas activities? That is the dilemma faced by Scott Calvin [Tim Allen] in this clip from The Santa Claus(e)[iv]:

What would we do in a similar situation? In reality, we are in that situation. Are we willing step up and give, like Santa, not just at Christmas, but all year long?

There are so many ways we can give to others. And the best gifts are not always the ones that cost a lot of money, and are not limited to this time of year. As Mother Teresa once said, “It’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving.” Here is a list of 25 simple gifts you can give that won’t cost you a cent:

  • Let someone with fewer items go ahead of you in the cashier line at a store.
  • Smile at someone, even if you don’t feel like it.
  • Hold the door open for someone.
  • Read to your kids, your neighbor’s kids, or volunteer to do it at the library.
  • Take your grocery cart back to the store.
  • Forgive someone who has wronged you – even without an apology on their part.
  • Make a phone call to someone you haven’t talked to in a while or who just needs to hear a friendly voice.
  • Ask friends or family over for a board game night, and even let them win! (I’m kidding about that last part, which would never, ever happen at the Ludlow residence.)
  • Do a chore around the house without being asked.
  • Let someone change lanes ahead of you (and smile or wave when you do it).
  • Apologize to someone you have hurt.
  • Listen … really listen … without always trying to fix the problem.
  • Send an email or text to someone you really appreciate.
  • Put together a pack of your favorite recipes and pass them on to family, friends and neighbors.
  • Make a list for someone’s birthday of why you like (or love) them equal to the number of years old the person is. For example, when my dad turned 90, my wife and I came up with 90 reasons why we loved him.
  • Spend quality time with your spouse or your kids.
  • Put together a playlist of someone’s favorite music or music that represents what that person means to you. My daughter did this for her mom one year for Mother’s Day, and it had the added advantage that I loved it, too!
  • Share your umbrella with someone in a rainstorm.
  • Tell your spouse (usually the wife) that she gets the day off, meaning you will cook, clean and watch the kids for an entire day. My son does this for his wife on her birthday, which she takes full advantage of by spending the day reading her new favorite book.
  • Tell stories about someone you love to someone else you love. For example, tell your grandchildren about experiences you or your parents had growing up. You might even record them so future generations can enjoy them as well.
  • Wash a neighbor’s car in summer or shovel their sidewalks in the winter (if you live where it snows).
  • Share your knowledge or skill with someone else, whether it’s helping them to play an instrument, helping them with tax returns, or helping them learn tricks on how to use the latest smart phone or other device. (This is one gift I wish everyone would give to me!)
  • Recognize a job well done.
  • Help a fellow traveler lift his or her luggage into the plane’s overhead compartment.
  • Give a friend or family member a hug (real men hug, you know).

I am sure you can think of many, many more no or low-cost gifts that you will probably find mean more to the recipient than many, if not all, the other gifts they get.

I hope you received everything you wanted this past holiday season, regardless of whether you were naughty or nice. More importantly, I hope we can all live The Law of the Boomerang and The Corollary of the Donut the whole year round. Remember, as Winston Churchill said it: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

[i] It’s a Wonderful Life

  • Production Company: Liberty Films
  • Director: Frank Capra
  • Screenwriter: Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
  • Starring: James Stewart, Donna reed and Lionel Barrymore
  • Release date: January 7, 1947

[ii] Pay It Forward

  • Production Company: Warner Bros, Bel Air Entertainment and Tapestry Films
  • Director: Mimi Leder
  • Screenwriter: Leslie Dixon (based on the book by Catherine Ryan Hyde)
  • Starring: Keven Spacey, Haley Joel Osment and Helen Hunt
  • Release date: October 20, 2000

[iii] Greedy

  • Production Company: Imagine Entertainment
  • Director: Jonathan Lynn
  • Screenwriter: Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel
  • Starring: Michael J. Fox, Kirk Douglas and Nancy Travis
  • Release date: March 4, 1994

[iv] The Santa Claus(e)

  • Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures, Hollywood Pictures and Outlaw Productions
  • Director: John Pasquin
  • Screenwriter: Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick
  • Starring: Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold and Wendy Crewson
  • Release date: November 11, 1994



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