When my parents used to fight and my mom was losing her marbles and my dad was trying to kiss up to her marbles, he’d offer to do something to console her and make amends: “From now on I promise I’ll. . .” (It was good entertainment. Together, my folks were a hot-headed stand up comedy act.) So he’d make an offer, and she’d groan, “Don’t do me any favours.”

My eight-year-old brain didn’t get it. Didn’t she want the favour? Weren’t favours good?

Favours are good. And bad. And divine. And dangerous. We operate in a vastly transactional culture. You do this for me, I’ll do that for you. Favours are . . . complicated business.

A Primer on Favours—Rife with Contradictions:

1. Be very mindful who you ask for favours. If you ask someone you don’t respect to give you a leg up—even though you really really need one, and it would be so easy breezy for them to oblige—you may be in the position one day to help out that same someone. That kind of scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours karma takes a bite out of your integrity—and potentially your reputation.

2. Regrettable favours happen all the time. It’s part of learning.

3. Just because you took a favour doesn’t mean you have to grant a favour. But yeah, whenever you can, try to return the favour. Maybe you can’t grant a specific request, but even so, you can ask, “How else can I help?”

4. I’m with my momma: Don’t do me any favours. If it feels soul-sapping to lend a hand, if you’re uncomfortable or compromising, then please, please, bow out. I like my favours squeaky clean. I think that as a concept, obligation blows. Why do anything that feels heavy and dutiful? Either reframe it into a positively empowered choice, or back away from it.

5. Favour boundaries can be useful for everyone. I have good author friends who have sweeping policies that they do not give testimonials for books—to anyone. That keeps it simple. It’s easy for them to say no, and nobody’s feelings get hurt. (My only sweeping policy is that I will never help you paint your apartment. Because next to dental work, there’s nothing I dislike more than painting walls. I will however give you money to buy paint and hire hot boys in white jeans to prime surfaces. And if you need a ride across town—hell, a ride to the next province—I’m game for that. I’m also great at funerals and weddings. Just don’t ask me to paint your apartment.)

6. Favour boundaries can turn your heart into a prune. Just show up for your friends, in the middle of the night, when it’s inconvenient, when they ask you to paint their apartment. Suck it up and get your soul in gear.

7. It doesn’t matter how enlightened you are: If you grant a favour to someone, it gets filed in your memory box of good deeds. And so it should—good is good. But favours become transcendent acts of love when you’re not attached to how they get returned. You may help someone today, and the favour could be returned by your neighbour, or a stranger, three years from now.

True ‘n’ free favours are like beads on a cosmic abacus, accounted for by invisible forces, and returned just when we need them the most.