How we could really pay it forward.
Photo used with Creative Commons License from user Michael Allen Smith https://flic.kr/p/8GDZWX
I know I’m supposed to like random acts of kindness. I know they are supposed to make me feel like we are all on the same team, cheering each other on and not caring about the recognition that goes with kindness. But they don’t.
Today I read about the “Pay it Forward” streak that lasted for 11 hours in Florida. Instead of brightening my day, it made me want to hug the woman who ended the streak. The barista said the woman who put a halt to the 141 customer sequence “didn’t seem to understand the concept”. Welcome to my world.
I was also confused the first time the car in front of me bought my drink at Starbucks.
“Oh,” I mumbled, “why?”
It is a nice thing to do, I learned, to buy someone’s drink when they aren’t expecting it. It also, I learned, is then expected that you do the same for the person behind you. So I did.
The second time it happened I felt a twinge of guilt. Not only had I ordered a fancy coffee drink, but I had ordered a fancy breakfast sandwich to go with it! Of course I had to pay for the person behind me, and they had purchased the practical drip coffee that I should have ordered. I just made money off being high maintenance, I thought.
The next time it happened I was downright angry. The entire process doesn’t make sense to me. By buying coffee for the person behind you, you negate the entire “kindness” that is being directed toward you. Someone eventually receives the kindness (whoever breaks the chain) but then they are assumed to either be A) A jerk who hates kindness or B) they don’t “seem to understand the concept.”
The last time it happened to me I finally understood fully why this bothers me so much. The barista told me it had been going on for over 1 hour, so I reluctantly yanked out my money and paid for a stranger’s drink. I pulled out of the drive through and immediately saw a presumably homeless man holding a sign within yards of the Starbucks I was at. I wondered how many of those folks who were so interested in “paying it forward” gave him even a second glance?
Here was a man who clearly needed help. Here was a line full of coffee drinkers who clearly didn’t. I was fully intending on paying for my fancy drink and fancy sandwich on this morning and every other morning I drive through to get coffee. Therefore I have had the conversation with myself about my current financial situation, therefore I have money to pay for it, therefore I don’t need help.
And I get that it is still a nice seeming thing to do. Surprise someone. Give them a gift they never asked for. But what makes me angry, what makes me want to slam down my double-soy-vanilla-latte, is that we don’t help people when they actually ask for it.
When people ask me what I learned from being a single mom for many years, my answer is always quick and blunt. I learned to ask for help. Which is different than learning to accept help. Accepting help is hard, but it is also inevitable. We all need help sometimes. ASKING for help can feel downright impossible. Probably because we tend to not listen when people actually do say they need help.
It is easier to look the other way. It is easier to judge how they got in that situation. It is easier to fund a fancy coffee for someone in line at Starbucks. It is difficult to listen to a person who has had to ask for help.
But it is way harder to ask. Whether the asking is for a ride to the store, two hours of child care, or money to make rent. Whether the asking is for social services, for mental health resources, or for a free meal. No matter how big or small, how slight or monumental it might seem, asking is really hard to do.
So don’t buy me coffee and feel like you did something nice. If you really want to help someone, if you really want to start a kindness revolution, give it to someone who needs it. Better yet, give it to someone who asks. They deserve coffee after what they’ve been through. I deserve the hefty fee for my fancy drink that I set out to pay.