When pay it forward happens to you

Photo Credit: Muffie Waterman
An incredibly nice woman paid for my coffee this morning.

I arrived at my local coffeehouse for my daily writing stint. Dropped my bag at a table, got in line, ordered my usual drink, and handed over the beautiful pottery mug I bring each day. Then I reached into my purse. And I experienced a sinking feeling as my hand felt around frantically without landing on my wallet.

Turning back to the cashier I stalled, saying I might not be getting the drink after all since I couldn’t find my wallet. I pulled the purse wide open and really rooted around. As certainty was seeping in that the wallet wasn’t there, I heard a lovely voice chime in from behind me

“I’ll buy her drink.”

Huh? I looked up. The woman in line behind me was smiling at the cashier. She started placing her order.

“Really?! That’s so nice of you! Thank you!”

Orders completed, I thanked her again profusely. Inspired by her generosity I said I’d pay it forward — when I came in tomorrow I’d put the money for today’s drink in the tip jar. In my good cheer, I told her that I would be radiantly happy all day. And all of that is true. And.

It would be so lovely if all my reactions and emotions were so tidy, but no.

Along with the burst of radiant happiness that someone would be so kind? Along with the pleasure of being able to have my coffee after all, of being able to just sit down and start work? Along with the unexpected joy of being treated? Ah. There it is. Discomfort. Undeservingness. Wanting to push off the feeling of receiving the gift.

So fascinating to see a lesson as it arises in front of me.

This paying it forward stuff is easy for me when I initiate it. Not so easy when it’s coming at me.

Whether ’tis nobler?

I’ve always had an easier time giving than receiving. It’s easy for me to offer help — from holding the door for someone, to stacking the chairs after a meeting, to offering a ride home to my kids’ teammates when they’re stuck after practice. Taking help? Nope. Not so good at taking help.

A friend observed once that when something needs doing, I do it. No mess, no fuss. Just step in and do what’s needed. That’s not a bad thing, exactly. But like everything else it is dual-edged.

I found it disconcerting when I first realized this. A long look at myself showed that (in the best way) I liked the feeling of being useful, and (in the worst way) I liked the feeling of being in charge.

Lessons in asking

When my children were very small I was in graduate school. Not the easiest way to finish a Ph.D., I can assure you. So no surprise that after I was done I was exhausted. My son had been in and out of the hospital, and I’m fairly sure that’s where I contracted a very dangerous bacterial infection. It took a while for it show up, but when it did, my was it a force to be reckoned with. I call it ‘the year I didn’t die’.

That infection took me down hard. I could hardly walk. I spent weeks in bed just sleeping. Even when I’d finally reversed the sleep debt of the early baby years, I was still stuck in bed for weeks. Our kids were small. We have no family nearby. We needed help. I had to learn to ask for help. Hardest lesson of my life, really.

And so I did learn, baby steps at a time, how to ask people to help with the kids, with food, with anything. With everything. And slowly, I got better. It took a year to be fully back. At about 11 months I started thinking it might not ever happen, and had begun re-appraising life. Then at about the one-year point something shifted and that last piece clicked back into place. I found I was more like myself again.

The deeper meaning of accepting help

That year of illness changed me in many ways. One of the ways I was grateful for was my new-found ability to accept help.

That year taught me that my unwillingness to accept help was a sort of weakness. I came to understand that I was holding myself off from others, a false narrative of capability underlying my dogged self-reliance. I saw that there’s a reciprocity in helping — that relationships aren’t fully developed without it. You need to be able to help and to take help from others. To always, only be the one helping, in a weird way, is to hold power over other people.

I found my way around to this idea when a dear friend perceptively asked how I felt when I offered help. That’s easy — it feels great to be able to do something nice for someone! Then she insisted that to allow others to help me was to give someone else the opportunity to feel that way.

That sounds simple enough, but it was s head-spinner for me. It took a lot to grow into that perspective. And to take it further in fact. I concluded that at its most radical extension, I don’t have the right to offer help if I won’t also accept it.

Can you embody what you believe?

I came to believe it was crucial for me to model this reciprocity for my children. It was already important to me that they be helpful. ‘The year I didn’t die’ urged me to offer my kids more. I wanted them to know that a fully expressed life, in integration with others, requires reciprocity of giving.

And so the lesson holds. I ask for help when I need it. At times I’m even comfortable doing it. I am open with our children about my limitations, and I’m helping them recognize and accept their own. We celebrate when we come together to help others, and also when help comes to us.

And then flash forward to this morning at the coffeehouse. To the incredibly nice woman paying for my coffee. And the opportunity to see the lesson as it arose in front of me.

Knowing that a lesson is here, and understanding what that lesson is about, are two very different steps. What to take away from this moment? It usually helps to ask myself outright, What’s the lesson here?

And so I see it. Lingering closer to the surface than I’d like, the layers of not wanting to be helped.

We’re never really finished learning. The work is never done. The trick is to keep looking. To embrace the places that feel uncomfortable along with the places that bring joy.

And then simply enjoy that free coffee when it’s offered.

Photo credit: Muffie Waterman