I covered for one of my colleagues a few weeks ago. It was in a math lab and for less than half an hour. She wanted to return the favor immediately. Although I applaud her desire to do so, if I did it at her convenience, it wouldn’t really be a return of the favor. She wanted me to cover for her because she had something she wanted to do. She had a reason to leave early. I want to save my return favor for a time when I need it.
I realize it would be nicer to her if I just told her, “Sure, I’ll take the time off today. I could use a rest.” It would ease her mind and make her comfortable with the trade. Instead I want to hoard the favor for when I need it. I may never need it, but, like money in the bank, I like to feel I can draw on it.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. My experience has been that most people either won’t remember the favor or won’t feel the need to return it. There are many who give out favors without feeling the need to receive a return, and I have benefited from such people. (A former neighbor comes to mind.) I’ve covered many more classes for other people than they have covered for me, but I’ve been healthy. I may need the favors returned someday. Alternatively, I may retire leaving people who resent the fact that I didn’t let them return the favor.
The phrase I like is to pay it forward, because we can’t always pay it back. Unreturned favors are like money in the bank. We may outlive the money, but it is nice to know the value is there.