Disrupting the Balance


Someone ahead of me in the drive-thru decided to pay for my coffee. I have had this happen more than anyone else I know. People really enjoy paying it forward to me, specifically. What exactly is the universe trying to tell me? Am I drinking too much coffee? Not enough coffee? Do I look sad while I’m driving?

Twice this week I thought I should reciprocate. Both times I was alone in the drive-thru and found no opportunity. It was kind of a relief. I gave that homeless guy ten dollars a few weeks ago; maybe I suddenly believe in karma. By that math I still have at least one more coffee coming to me, and I’m off the hook for a little while.

I usually donate my dollar or change to any cause that a cashier offers to me while paying for my fast food or Walgreen’s items. Scratch that. I will ALWAYS do it if they ask me about it, and NEVER if they don’t. So basically my giving nature comes down to how it makes me feel socially. Saying “no” and asking for permission to donate feel equally awkward.

If I see the area decorated with people’s names who have donated I will usually say “no” whether the cashier asks or not. I don’t want to take time to write my name on a paper advertising my small generosity. On the rare occasion I am tricked into it, I always write Teghan’s name. Then I think, “Great. Someone is going to see this and know I ate at Arby’s today.” This is the kind of irrational thought I’m trying to keep to a minimum.

That donation thing they put under drive-thru windows where you can just toss your change in? Genius. And here’s a sales tip for all you upsellers out there: If what you are selling is the laziest possible option….I’m in. For example, if not purchasing something requires me to sign a paper opting out, you just made a sale.

I’m not proud of that.

Of course, you can’t know all this by looking at me from your rear view mirror in the Starbucks drive-thru. So I get a lot of free coffee. It’s not as if I don’t find other ways to give back. I’m just oblivious as I go through the routine of my day. I need time to think about such things.

But sometimes I am a true failure. I go months forgetting to be a helpful person and simply resign myself to being nice. So maybe I forgot to buy cookies from my child’s school fundraiser. It’s a special needs school- I should be going door to door with this stuff. But I bet her teacher would never accuse me of being difficult. Some of the most charitable people are also the most troublesome. I’m easy to get along with. If there were points, I’m not sure how that would work out. But there are no points.

I used to make displays at a Christian bookstore (you can read all about the cult atmosphere and scavenger hunt that led to the end of my employment here). One evening a woman who collected Seraphim Angels was admiring my display. She was getting her fingerprints all over my freshly dusted glass shelves and telling me every detail about her current favorite.

Seraphim (2)I had zero interest in this particular collection, and she had a lot to say. I smiled and agreed enthusiastically. She was annoying. She made such a stupid fuss over them. The one she wanted was a hundred dollars and she couldn’t afford it. I know, because she made me go over her angel budget with her. I went over it very thoroughly. It turns out that an angel budget was not a realistic option for her.

Later I felt bad about not liking her. Why? Because I carried around a lot more guilt back then. I mean, I was young and working at a Christian bookstore. My supervisor regularly told us that the sales floor was a stage and Jesus was our audience. It was a different time in my life.

The woman’s address was in our system so I sent her a gift certificate anonymously that would cover the cost of the angel. It made me feel better about not liking her and appeased my peeping Jesus paranoia. I’m hardly bragging. I had to pull that story out of 1997. She came back in and didn’t even use the gift certificate to buy an angel. She told me all about the anonymous friend who she was sure was someone at her church. I was surprised to find out that I still didn’t like her.

What motivates us to do things for others or to “pay it forward” varies. Some people like the recognition, even if it’s only by a cashier who couldn’t be less interested. Others feel good from the effort it takes. They’ll go build houses and pick up trash just because they have time on their hands. Others love the idea of it, but are a little slower at putting thoughts into motion. They require the social conditions to be just right; or they need some time to think it over- and then miss their window of opportunity. Anxiety ruins all the best plans.

Anyone who has ever tried their hand at fundraising can tell you that even the most giving among us aren’t so easy. You have to inspire people. Or simply ask in the right way (or enough times). See how I ALMOST reciprocated that coffee thing? And really, I am going to end up paying for someone’s coffee. I could just pay for my own each time and skip the guilt. We are not talking about saving lives here. We are talking about making a person smile by paying for a cup of coffee they could easily afford themselves. Couldn’t I just compliment someone’s sweater in the grocery store later?

We’re so proud of little things like that, because we are the strangest species ever.

photo 2 (3)

We each create our own little world inside of the real, bigger world and tell ourselves it matters just as much. The weird part is that it actually does. We disassociate with outsiders the way I disassociate with my arm while giving blood. We congratulate ourselves for the smallest of humanitarian efforts. It’s all we can do, really.

It contributes to the fragile balance that keeps us connected and separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom (along with our unique ability to see ourselves in historical context). Our ancestors figured this out over time, and now we are just going through the motions. Adding to the rituals little by little, never paying attention to how we got to this place. But for some of us it is a very civilized place, isn’t it?

So no more guilt about what I didn’t do. I suspect my kindness equals out in the long run. I won’t give up on being a better person; opportunities never run out and we can’t get to all of them anyway. I will also respect other people’s right to be oblivious. I will not be offended when someone doesn’t donate to my special causes, compliment my shoes, read my blog, or know when they have something to offer.

I will accept that most people I encounter will feel good about themselves for simply not being a jerk to my kid. That inviting us into your home or smiling at us in public is somehow the equivalent of allowing a cashier to keep your change for St. Jude. For some this is the equivalent of writing a check for a million dollars; and for others it’s the equivalent of eating dinner at a chain restaurant that is donating 10% of the bill to autism research.

It really is true that the person who vaguely accepts us and the person who fully embraces us can be equally kind; the same way my being uncomfortable with children means nothing about what kind of parent I am. And that the little things that mean the most also mean almost nothing at all. It’s all part of the delicate social balance that no one really understands. It’s so easy to pretend that in an apocalypse situation at least ten of you wouldn’t immediately nominate my daughter to be eaten first. So easy.

Tomorrow morning I think I am going to pay for a stranger’s coffee.


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