Sometimes our seemingly smallest acts can have the largest impact — and what’s more profound is that we might never even know just how much.
Take the Starbucks drive-thru, for example.
Many of us journey through that drive-thru as a means to an end. It’s not a destination; we don’t even walk inside. We want to grab and go. For me, it’s a gateway to my caffeine and my favorite sandwich wrap on this planet. I expect nothing else beyond that, and I get slightly annoyed if the car in front of me takes too long at the cashier window.
And so, it came as such a surprise today when instead of hearing the barista tell me how much I owe (always $6.75), he said, “Ma’am, your order is free today. The person in the car in front of you paid for your order.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so shocked, but I was. A complete stranger had just paid for my beloved spinach feta wrap and my latte. And he didn’t even expect or want a “thank you.” I hurriedly scanned the scene ahead of me — should I flag him down and wave?
“Why?” I asked the barista. He told me that this typically happens at least once a week on his shift and they refer to it as the “Pay It Forward Chain.” And that’s the moment when I am reminded that random acts of kindness can be contagious.
“One person finds out his order was paid and so he pays it for the person behind him,” he explained. “The record here is eight cars in a row.”
Suddenly, I felt inspired. It wasn’t because I had saved $6.75; this seemingly little act of kindness was priceless. Feeling empowered with the idea that I could pay this forward to another, I eagerly looked behind me and felt disappointed that nobody was there.
I thought about it all day. Why was I so surprised that a stranger showed me kindness and didn’t expect anything in return? Had I become so cynical?
My mother’s face lights up whenever she shares a story with me about how she pays it forward in drive-thru lines. My favorite is her most recent story of when a young man suddenly swerved in front of her to cut her off so that he could be the first to enter the parking lot. Seeing that he had missed hitting her car by a mere inch, my mom honked her horn. The man rolled down his window, looked behind him, and yelled at her with a name that rhymes with “itch.”
Minutes later, shaking because she was so upset, my mother entered the Starbucks drive-thru. Pulling up to the counter window, she glanced in her rearview mirror and saw the same man behind her, impatiently drumming his fingers on the dashboard.
“What’s wrong?” asked the barista. “You look upset.”
“I am!” my mother said. “The man behind me swerved in front of me a short while ago and then called me a b-i-t-c-h.”
She thought a moment. “I’m so upset, and I know this sounds crazy, but you know what I’m going to do?”
The barista’s mouth dropped slightly. “Uh, what?”
“I’m going to pay for his order.”
And with that, she paid for the man’s meal and drink, and drove off. Sometimes, it takes a stronger person to start a pay-it-forward chain than to be a link somewhere in the middle.
I have to wonder how that young man felt when he learned that the woman he insulted repaid him with kindness. Maybe, just maybe, he will be inspired one day to repay the favor.