A few weeks ago, I agreed to participate in David’s Second Annual Pay It Forward Day. I don’t know David. It was an event sent to me as an electronic message by an old work colleague. The event was to take place December 1st, from 7:00 AM to 8:30 PM. Participants were asked to perform a random act of kindness. Pay for someone’s coffee. Help someone out. Get the next person’s gas. “When you do something for someone,” David wrote, “there’s a good chance they’ll do something nice for someone else.”
This is exactly the type of thing I love getting involved in. Or so I thought.
I made a commitment to myself to participate and immediately had specific Random Acts in mind. I had two doctor appointments that day and I was going to bring a bouquet of flowers to the receptionist at each office.
I don’t know if anyone remembers December 1st, but it was a wet and windy Wednesday. Branches and trees were falling and the rain came down in torrents. I couldn’t bear the thought of parking and walking to a florist before my noon appointment, so I excused myself from Act I and arrived at that doctor’s empty-handed. The rain continued. I did not want to go to the florist any more at 3:00 than I did at noon, but I had to get some milk so I went to the grocery store and picked up a potted plant for receptionist number two.
The gift seemed to please her, and I was happy I had kept my promise, but deep down I knew I had cheated. This was a doctor I visit often, and I have a close, friendly relationship with the receptionist. There didn’t seem anything random about bringing her a plant at holiday time. It was just a nice (albeit an uncharacteristically nice) thing for me to do.
Later that day, I felt the disappointment mounting. Then a friend emailed me and told me she couldn’t get herself out into the horrible weather to perform her random act, so she was going to do it tomorrow. I jumped all over her, saying that there were still plenty more hours of Pay It Forward Day remaining. She was stuck in the house with her young kids, she said. You can figure something out, I said. I simply would not let her off the hook.
She said she was going to make an online donation to an organization that she’s supported in the past. I told her I thought she could do better than that.
It’s not that I’m against organized charities – I’m not. But charitable donations do not smack of Random Acts of Kindness – at least not to me. I feel like the whole point of Random Acts, is to do something that’s really atypical for you. Even better if it’s anonymous. Better still if it’s a little difficult. Nowhere is this written, but I had embraced it as if it were law.
I’m not sure what made me such a complete bitch about this “event,” but it wasn’t lost on me, even at the time, that my crummy attitude was completely counter to the spirit of what David hoped to conceive. I’ve spent most of my adult life across from a therapist, inspecting how I take out on other people my own shortcomings. Here I was, doing it again, and all of a sudden decades of therapy bills seemed like a complete waste of money.
So, partly to honor my commitment and partly to get better value out of my therapy dollar, I forced myself to stop berating my friend and instead myself go execute the Act that I thought she should have done.
I pulled out the phone book, opened it up, pointed to a name and circled it. I got an envelope, addressed it to my randomly-chosen name, stuck a twenty-dollar bill in a card and dropped it in the mail.
I did do all that. But there was a lot of time between each step. Because when something is especially hard for me, I stall. And I find reasons not to go through with it. Like: This is an old phone book, what if this person doesn’t live there anymore? And: I don’t really like that name, maybe I should open to a different page and pick someone new. Or: What if this is a substance abuser and I’m contributing to his ultimate demise. But especially: Money is tight; this is not the time to be sending it to complete strangers.
By the time I actually got the card into the mail, it was December 3rd, and even that took a lot of effort. The whole thing felt like flushing money down the toilet to me – money I really don’t have to flush.
But when I think of that man opening his mail, reading an unsigned card that starts off, “Hi, you don’t know me, but…” and having a twenty dollar bill fall into his lap, it sort of makes me wish I had put in a little more. I imagine him using it to take his son out for an ice cream, or maybe bringing home a pizza for the family. I imagine him going to work the next day and surprising someone with a cup of coffee. Or letting someone go ahead of him at the bank. And then that new person going out of her way to return someone’s dropped glove. A little domino effect that might go on and on forever.