It’s been on my to-do list for about two weeks—pay it forward.
I remember the day I typed it into my phone. The people in front of me in a fast food drive-through had paid for my lunch. They were gone by the time I was informed. “Who was it?” I implored. The drive-through employee just looked at me. How was he to know? “Well, what did they look like?” Initially, I thought it must be someone who knew me; why else would they do it? Later, I realized it was probably just someone who had had the same done to them. I knew, then, that I had to pay it forward, and I remember feeling intoxicated with the assurance of the goodness of people as I put the task on my to-do list—pay it forward. I was high with hope for our community, the world, civilization. Giddy. Motivated to do good in this world, to make someone else feel like I was feeling at that very moment.
Now it just so happens that this event—someone paying for my lunch—happened just days after I saw a short video called “Make the Homeless Smile.” The video really got me thinking and I had added a to-do to my list after watching it—nourish the homeless. I didn’t know how I would ever check this one off. I’m a bit wary of homeless people and not sure how to approach them. I don’t know how to quickly asses what their needs might be, their lesser needs, the ones that I could maybe help out with. But I went ahead and put it on my list. And I tried to keep the theme of the video in mind—you don’t need to change the whole world, just change someone’s world, if but for a day, a moment.
So I’ve been busy, busy getting back to work and surviving the first two weeks of school. But today I had the morning off. I took my daughter to an appointment and then out to lunch. We were at Subway and, while waiting in line, I checked a few text messages and emails and, yes, my to-do list. There it was. Pay it forward. I peeked at the person behind me, curious. A young man, early twenties, shabby clothing, talking on his phone and finding out what the person on the other end wanted to order. This is it, I thought. Not because he was in shabby clothing. Because I could already feel the power of what was about to happen and here I had the opportunity to share it with my daughter. We ordered our sandwiches and were at the register. “Excuse me,” I said to the young man, who was specifying which vegetables he wanted, “are those your two sandwiches?”
“And will you be getting meal deals?” I asked.
“Yeeeessss,” he replied, hesitantly, looking at me out of the corner of his eye.
“The reason I’m asking is because I want to buy those for you.”
“Oh! Okay. That’s really nice!” He turned toward me, smiling of course. He was now open to visiting with me, a complete stranger.
“Well, you see,” I began, “I was in a drive-through a couple of weeks ago and someone bought my meal for me. And it just made my day. So I’d like to pay it forward.”
A few moments later I was filling my drink and he came over and thanked me again. “You are so welcome,” I said. “You know, I thought it felt good when someone got my meal for me. But this feeling, this paying it forward, is ten times better. So I hope you’ll be able to do it someday. To pay it forward to someone else.”
As my daughter and I enjoyed our sandwiches, I got my phone out. My intent was to check the little box next to the pay it forward task. I had done it. It was complete. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t check it off. Why would I, I suddenly realized. Why would I eliminate something from my future that could make me feel this good? I knew then and there that I would pay it forward again and again and again.
Later in the day, in the evening, I went grocery shopping. There was a woman near the grocery store, across the street, and she was holding a sign that said Down On My Luck. She appeared homeless, certainly down on her luck. But, me? I was feeling incredibly lucky this day. Blessed! Blessed with enough to eat, with happiness, with a little extra money, with an opportunity to approach a homeless person and find out what she might need. You see, I wasn’t as worried about going up to a woman. This person was a gift to me just because she was a woman. I walked right up to her and said, “Ma’am, I’m going into the grocery store. Is there anything that I can get for you?”
She grinned! We could have been on the “Make the Homeless Smile” video. “How about a nice sandwich for dinner?”
“Sure! Turkey or roast beef or something like that?”
“And what about a treat of some kind?” I asked. I knew I couldn’t get her just a sandwich. “Is there something yummy you haven’t had in a while? Something you’re craving?”
She put her hands to her heart. “A doughnut?”
“You bet! Now don’t go anywhere. I’ll be out in just a little while.”
When I came out, she was still there. As I approached her, with a fat sandwich, two doughnuts, a bag of cookies, and a pink drink, I could hear her talking. I assumed she was talking to herself, but then I saw the man who was behind the bushes. Perhaps she’ll share this food with him, I thought. And I knew the feeling she would get from sharing, from nourishing another, and I was happy that she would have such an opportunity.
I strode right up to her and showed her the items and I was in her space and she was in mine. And it was amazing. She asked if she could hug me. And I said yes. And I haven’t stopped smiling since I left her. I feel good. Giddy. Crazy with hope.
Pay it forward. Check. Nourish the homeless. Check. The deeds are done. But tomorrow is a new day and there are more people. More opportunities. I can’t buy lunch for strangers every day. Nor can I afford to pick up a twelve dollar dinner for a homeless person every time I hit the store. But I can pay it forward in so many other ways. Random acts of kindness. Smiles. Just being brave enough to approach the homeless, to enter their space, to visit with them. So many types of nourishment. So many little ways to change someone’s world.
Pay it forward. What a win-win concept. Make the homeless smile. Another win-win. These are two to-do’s I’ll keep on my list forever.