Paying it Forward

The other day I was waiting in a painfully long line at Starbucks on my way to work.  Painfully long as in three cars.  I ordered my common morning pick me up, a grande Pike Place.  As I wait for the people in front of me to order their “Caramel mocha focha docha lattes skinny with soy milk espresso,” I grow in anticipation.  It is too early for me to be waiting on this.  I pull up to the window and my window is frozen shut.  I open my door enough to stick my Starbucks gift card out the window and also, the most important part, getting my coffee into my hands.  As I reach out with my gift card, the woman at the window informs me: “The person in the car in front of you has paid for your coffee.”

I was thrilled.  MMMMMM FREE COFFEE!  God is happy  with me today.  But before I close my door, I hand her my card and say, “Get the person behind me.”

What I had just experienced is commonly called “Paying it Forward.”

It sounds like a really nice gesture, and it is.  But as I was going through this experience, I was quickly thinking and processing my feelings.  First was obvious, FREE COFFEE!!!!  Then I thought, “How long has this been going on today?”  I had seen a story on the local news about how one Starbucks in town had 50 some-odd people “paying it forward.”  Then I thought, “I can’t be the guy who breaks this cycle and look like a total jerk.  The social pressure to continue with this trend was very high.  Then after I gave her my card, I thought, “Wait a minute, what if the person behind me just ordered a $10 coffee?!?!”  I obviously did not have that kind of budget.

As I fell into the social pressure that was placed upon me by complete strangers, I pulled out of the parking lot, finally with my coffee, and I thought:  “WHAT IN THE HELL WAS THAT?!”

Really people?? That is the best we can do today?  I am sure that the $3 you paid for some other persons coffee really made a difference in the world.  I didn’t pull into Starbucks hoping to get a free coffee.  I pulled in because I knew I had the $3 for coffee.  I also suspect that every other person in that line also had the money to pay for their coffee.  Why?! Why in a city with a very visible homeless community are we spending money on other middle class people’s coffee?  At the location of this Starbucks, we are all heading into downtown, where we will all pass at least 3 homeless people on the corners.  Why are we continuing to pay it forward to people who don’t need it?  I love my coffee, but it is not life or death.  Why didn’t I break the cycle, and not pay for the person behind and instead give the remainder of my gift card to the man who sits on the bench outside of the Disciples Center everyday?

Why wasn’t I the one who broke the cycle of paying it forward, and really just doing what God called me to do, serving the least of these?

Social pressure is sometimes too quick and too powerful to even realize what is truly happening.  Sometimes we don’t have time to discern and exegete every single situation.  Sometimes we just go with the flow.  Sometimes we just fail.


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15 responses to “Paying it Forward”

  1. Debbie Hardin says :

    If you ‘pay it forward’ because of social pressure, the point is missed. Now, I have occasionally had part of my food paid for in a drive through line and I’ve paid for others. Getting my burger for free didn’t change the world but it did make my day a little brighter and, hopefully, made me a little more helpful and kind to my coworkers and clients. I hope the person behind me at least gets a smile or a warm snugly feeling in return. Does that change our homeless situation? Does it help to feed the poor? No, it doesn’t unless the person behind you goes on to donate a coat to a shelter or gives a few bucks to the next person who asks. That, to me, is paying it forward. I have much to pay forward as my life has been stupendously blessed. Sometimes, I try with a casserole to the sick or clothes to a shelter and, sometimes, it’s with a Big Mac.

    • jaydeskins says :

      Thanks Debbie for replying! I agree. Social pressure does miss the point of paying it forward. My hope is that the last person at Starbucks to get a free coffee went on to be the person who helped someone who desperately needed it! But for me, in that long line, I felt the pressure to not be the jerk who stopped the, God knows how long, line of people doing this. I’m not mad that I paid for another persons coffee or offended that someone bought mine, but I think many people might miss the real need in “paying it forward.”

      Thanks again for the comment!!

  2. Nicola says :

    I think the same thing whenever I hear these “miraculous” pay it forward stories. You don’t get in the drive through line at Starbucks if you can’t afford to pay an (excessive) amount for coffee. Paying for the person behind you in the coffee shop line or the fast food line generally isn’t doing any good. While I can appreciate the sentiment, there is so much better good that can be done and be reported on, in this country.

  3. Rose says :

    Hi Jay. I appreciate your insights. I, too, have been grappling with questions of giving and philanthropy. As of late, however, I’ve slowly been coming to the realization that there are multiple types of giving, each of which can be meaningful and valuable in their own right. Random acts of kindness, liking paying for a customer’s latte, won’t necessarily address a serious financial need, but I do think they have the potential to be meaningful. Whenever I’m the fortunate recipient of a random act of kindness, often, I feel valued–as if my relative anonymity or obscurity in a world of billions has suddenly evaporated and that I actually matter enough to someone–a total stranger. Sure, I don’t exactly need a free cup of coffee, a cookie, or, as was done by a random-acts-of-kindness club at my university during finals’ week, a free pancake and sausage breakfast, but the gesture is very meaningful. Moreover, it reminds me of how much Christ loves me and how He calls me to show love and kindness to others through my actions–both to those visibly in need, and those who are not. Of course, I don’t think random acts of kindness are the only kinds of giving/philanthropy people should engage in. There are, indeed, real material needs around us, and no doubt, as followers of Christ, we are called to address those needs. Personally, I am striving to give in a way that is high in material impact and also reasonably high in personal sacrifice. Giving that is too easy or too comfortably doesn’t really challenge me to grow personally or spiritually. Again, however, this doesn’t altogether negate the meaning of other types of giving. If we were truly to devote ourselves to living in a way that meets only the material needs around us, then giving gifts on birthdays, holidays, etc. to the close friends and relatives around us who perhaps live reasonably comfortable lives would not be justified/called for. There is value, I believe, in many types of giving, and each of which has the potential to impact lives in meaningful ways, material and non-material.

  4. Peter says :

    why in the world would anyone pay $10 for a coffee? How about $2 for a cup, and do some good with the rest?

  5. Linda Keeling says :

    I go to Starbucks and only pay 4 dollars for my coffee and second the concept of paying it forward is very enligtening for one thing.Knowing that someone else wants to make your day a little brighter by paying for your coffee,food, etc.We can use more of that and the world will be a brighter place!

  6. Sara says :

    Loved the article!! Really got me thinking! I both agree and disagree with you. I agree that we need to start paying more attention to those around us who NEED the help more than others who already have the money in their pockets to pay for the items they are about to get (like being in line at a starbucks to buy the coffee you have the money for). There are so many around us in Indy and all over the world struggling to just get by and find some food for the day. It sometimes seems silly to wonder why we are ‘paying it forward’ only to those who already have enough to survive when it could have helped someone who needed the help more. I disagree when you say that by continuing the chain of paying for others coffee is a ‘fail’. I disagree because by doing this small act EVEN for someone who doesn’t really need it… it does amazing things to their overall thought of the day. Just think about it. You’re having a crappy morning, get your morning cup of coffee.. go to pay.. and find out everyone has been paying for the person behind them all morning with absolutely no thank you expected back. You leave feeling good.. like you did something really nice for someone since someone did something nice for you, but for me it shouldn’t stop there! For me it actually gives me a boost that makes me want to do even MORE that day. Spread the love MORE! It’s almost like the fog of the daily routine lifts and I start seeing situations in the day where someone needs my help and that I should do something for them expecting nothing in return. Many times when I’ve had something like this happen to me it’s almost as though it’s opened my eyes again to remember the good in the world. Now sure… buying someones coffee isn’t going dramatically change the world, but I like to think it helps give people a boost to be an even better person the rest of the day, week, month… however long it lasts. We get so sucked into our daily and weekly routines I feel like we forget anything else going on outside of OUR routine. This kind of changes it up, makes us think more about just THINKING of helping someone other than ourselves. That one moment of paying it forward may be what someone needed to do even MORE good that day as they come into contact with some who cannot afford daily coffee, food, cloths, etc. That one moment made someone change their routine and feel good about it to then hopefully go on to do even more for others and not just that but to WANT to help others! I agree with you that sometimes people really do miss the reason of ‘paying it forward’, but that is something they must learn on their own.

    • jaydeskins says :

      Thanks for the thoughts! I agree that these little things don’t change the whole world, but rather the day of someone. Which I think is wonderful. But what if everyone who got free coffee went on to serve the world that day rather than themselves, at which I failed that day! I just hope it didn’t stop there!!

  7. Cate says :

    I think that by “paying it forward” to one middle-class citizen who can afford their coffee, they may have the exact same thoughts you did and consider paying it forward to people who need it even more than they did. That is the point. It has a ripple effect. It makes people think, “Wow, if someone would do THAT for ME, then why am I not doing THAT (of MORE) for OTHER PEOPLE who actually need it?”

    You asked, “Really people?? That is the best we can do today?” Perhaps those people also do other things that are just as, if not more, helpful for those who need it just as much or even more, and this was just a small gesture that would leave a lasting impression on some that was worth a lot more than the initial $3. If we questioned every small, kind gesture that people commit and wonder why they aren’t doing more, then I think we are missing the point of small, kind gestures.

    As Mother Teresa so beautifully advised, “Do small things with great love.”

  8. Cate says :

    or more*

    • Cate says :

      Also (sorry, more thoughts came to mind), I once read a quote that said something along the lines of, “Telling someone that they shouldn’t be sad because some other people have it worse is like telling someone that they shouldn’t be happy because some other people have it better.”

      Now, just because someone in the Starbucks drive-thru line could pay for their coffee does not mean that they may not have been in need in some other way. I was once feeling very downtrodden over some things going on in my life and went through a drive-thru cafe because I didn’t want to walk in anywhere and face anyone. It was taking a long time because of a problem with their ordering system, and, though I was feeling upset about other things, I made the conscious decision ahead of time to be very friendly toward the employee at the window because I know it can be difficult to handle upset customers. When I pulled up, I sucked up how I truly felt and smiled, and they let me know that lunch was on them today because there was a fluke in the system that messed up my total.

      It was pure random luck that my order should have been skipped, but I felt like I needed that small stroke of luck more than anything in that moment. I had been feeling so low, and something as simple as that turned my whole day around.

      My long-winded point is that sometimes the smallest thing (cost and ability to pay that cost aside) can make a huge difference for someone. They do not have to be starving or poor to be deserving or in need of your kindness or generosity. It is no less meaningful to share a random act of kindness with someone who is fed, clothed, and sheltered than it is to do so for someone who is not. Ideally, we would help all kinds of people, but not every act of generosity we do for someone needs to be based on whether it should be given to someone out there who is even more needy. There will always be someone more needy, and if everyone gave to that person, then he would be wealthier and better fed than any of us.

      • jaydeskins says :

        Thanks for all your comments! And don’t apologize! I agree with you. And I know I may have jumped to a lot of conclusions, but I think my hope is for more justice than small acts of charity (not getting rid of any small acts of charity)

  9. Cate says :

    Thanks for your response! I hope I did not come across as upset. It just sparked a lot to make me think about, so my thoughts ran wild! I agree with you that we should both do small acts and also give even more thought to what we could do for those who are in need of even more than some of the rest of us.

    I talked about it with my coworker just now, and now I’m thinking about what else I could do to give back. So I’m glad that it made you think and resulted in your writing this post. : )

    • jaydeskins says :

      That’s great! And the point is not for any one person including me to be right but to get people thinking!

      I think that giving back and doing things for those in need is more charity, and changing the system and changing lives is justice… And we get those things mixed up.

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