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One morning, en route to the office on an otherwise regular Monday, I found myself craving coffee. This was unusual because usually morning-me is running on enthusiasm and copious amounts of Sunday night sleep, for which my coffee fueled colleagues have applauded me. But on that particular day, the prolonged highway commute did me in. Dunkin Donuts, better known as the white jacket watering hole across from the hospital, was particularly busy that morning but my craving urged me to the back of the drive-thru line.  Once I finally got to the first window I was told that my large iced coffee had already been paid for by the driver in front of me. Surprised by this mysterious act of kindness I tried to see if I recognized the car or the skewed reflection of a face in the driver’s rear view mirror. Neither could be confirmed and so I forced a smile while I waited for my straw. The young woman behind the Dunkin Donuts window explained that the person in front of me was paying it forward. She then leaned closer and asked, “So do you want to pay for the person behind you?” A bit confused but without questioning her I agreed to this with, “Sure, if everyone else is doing it. I mean, why not?” Eleven dollars and seven minutes later I was at work, telling coworkers of my surprising occurrence.

In terms of drive-thru etiquette, ‘Paying it Forward’ encompasses the concept that someone, somewhere, starts his (or her) day off on the right side of the bed, goes to a drive-thru, like a local Dunkin Donuts or coffee shop, orders something off the menu and then insists upon paying for the food and/or drink of the person in the car or line behind him/her, on top of paying for his (or her) own order. The amount of the order obviously varies in price but the knowledge of the amount is only obtained by asking the cashier how much BOTH orders will cost together. The do-gooder then exits the premises and when the other person is told that her food has been paid for by the stranger who was in front of her, the ball is then in her court. Thus the chain begins and the hope is that the person to follow in line is more likely to be inspired, if not guilted, into participating in the act with the incentive that someone, somewhere, will pass on the favor. A little give for a little take.

In fact, I found myself participating in said act back when I was in high school in order to be noticed by a couple of seniors in the car behind me. And by buying their lattes, I not only gained their acknowledgment but was given praise and eventually higher social standing in the student ranks. So I learned that to be treated well meant treating others (well). Simple enough. And yes, this instance of course was more for self-gain but what are the real differences from that and the Dunkin Donuts drive thru in a close knit community?

In the quaint land of suburbia, paying for someone else’s cappuccino and hash browns may not be so much an act of charity as it is a fun thing to do. Let’s examine! Like children on the playground being inducted into a secret club, exclusivity is almost always coveted. After all, what’s five dollars between neighbors? Or, in the case of my first high school instance, what’s three dollars between a sophomore using her mom’s credit card and two attractive seniors on the soccer team? Furthermore, what can really be said of the person who starts the chain reaction? And what can be said of the person who breaks it? First, you must realize this is just one person’s observation and it can be argued that the concept of ‘Paying it Forward’ does not actually contribute to anything/one save for the raising up of community moral. It can also be argued that this concept is a kindness within its own financial means, after all, not all of us can afford to buy breakfast for the family of four in the minivan behind us. But is that really the point?

Food for thought:

Essayist and novelist Ralph Waldo Emerson discusses ‘deed-for-deed, cent-for-cent’ kindness in his essay Compensation, basing his theology on the Christian teachings of charity. Basically expanding on the concept that in order to receive kindness one must first be kind. He touches on the laws of nature explaining that, “Certain compensation balances every gift and every defect.” Compensation, in the case of ‘Paying it Forward’, would be the act itself and participation in the chain. So we must discern the gift from the defect. Sure, the person in front of you paid for your iced coffee but did she start the ball rolling? There’s no way to know who started the chain, unless of course you ask, but why not just do your part in this balancing act by paying for the person behind you and then starting the chain reaction over again at some other drive-thru, somewhere else, at some other point in your life? That’s perhaps the real gift: inspiration. And even though the person who broke the chain may have a good excuse for not being able to pay for the eleven dollar order that follows, s/he isn’t the defect. In reality, defect comes when you find yourself in the throes of the game and you play along but never think to start it over again unless you find yourself once again involved. Charitable acts, though applauded these days, are still taken with a grain of salt. Take my latest reaction as an example- I was taken aback and somewhat suspicious. Looking back on that recent occurrence makes me realize how jaded I’ve become now, especially in retrospect to how financially dependent I was as a teenager. But third time’s a charm and I think I’ll find a rainy day to do my part and get the ball rolling again. In the mean time we must reflect on what these small instances do for the morale of the community.

As the cyber age advances we see these acts of kindness being carried out in a variety of ways. Programs like Youtube, Instagram and Twitter, allow us to share our photos, stories, and kind acts with the world- big and small, near and far, expensive and humble- accessible and all universally understood. While a select few choose to write and discuss these good deeds in length, most of us recognize the concept of kindness when confronted with it at the drive-thru. In the last two decades, America has become more case sensitive with issues like self-image and societal expectations due to the changes in our policies and acceptance within our social norms. Take same-sex marriage for example. If someone who is against gay marriage found herself in the midst of the ‘Paying if Forward’ act, she wouldn’t know if the person behind her was gay or not, she would have to make her decision to participate solely on how much she could afford and how good of a mood she’s in. In order to safeguard our youth from self-destructive habits like cyber bullying or racial bigotry everyone should be encouraged to pay it forward in some small way so as to encourage inspiration and kindness.  This generation’s tolerance to acts of violence, natural disaster, foreign and domestic, is tragically high so why not demonstrate kindness? Why not make this next generation of do-gooders think we are a community/society/race of individuals worth being kind to?

Originally Submitted September 17, 2014

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