It’s not that you don’t know how, it’s just that you might have forgotten.
Last week I got myself into a parking lot pickle. I drove down one of the rows and when I got to the end, it was blocked off by a long row of traffic cones. When I looked in my rear-view window to turn around, I saw that line of cars had followed me, so I was blocked in.
I considered my options: turn on a podcast and wait for the cars behind me to move or get out and move the cones myself so I could get through.
Since I’m impatient, I hopped out of my truck and grabbed the cones. Seeing my situation, a passerby jogged over and told me, “Hey, go ahead and drive out — I’ll put all the cones back!”
When I got back in the truck, I had to explain the whole situation — including the mild rule-breaking — to my inquisitive four-year-old son.
“Mom, that guy just filled your bucket,” he commented.
Bucket filling starts young
Both of my kids learned about “Bucket Filling” at daycare, but it’s something we should all be thinking about. The basic idea is that everyone has a bucket inside them. If you do something kind or helpful for a person, you are filling their bucket. When you are mean, rude, or hurtful, you are spilling their bucket. I guess the bucket is filled with happiness, optimism, or — most likely — chocolate sprinkles.
There’s nothing new or earth-shattering about this metaphor. Everyone knows it’s better to be a force for good than a force for bad.
But it’s easy to forget about when we’re enveloped in the stress of the news cycle and the rolling crisis of the pandemic. When you’re in survival mode, it feels like there’s nothing left to give. When you’re stuck at home, just trying to make it through another day of remote everything, it’s hard to raise your head above the fray and think about what little gesture you can make to boost someone’s mood.
What I’m realizing though, is this collective anxiety we’re all feeling right now makes bucket filling more important than ever. I’m also learning, from my son, that bucket-filling gestures can be very small, as long as they are genuine.
When I pick him up from daycare, he tells me about all of the ways his friends filled his bucket that day. Sometimes it’s just disconnecting two stuck legos or sharing a truck. Other times, a friend will compliment his haircut or shoes or say thank you to him when he helps them open their crackers. I’m sure these things happen in most pre-school classrooms, but I love that the bucket-filling metaphor has helped him take notice and appreciate them.
Filling Up The Buckets
I don’t have any friends who need their Legos pulled apart, but I do know that a lot of my friends have had a rough year with a lot of canceled plans, sick family members, and time cooped up at home. I wish I had the time and energy to deliver homemade meals to them or write them long, newsy handwritten letters, but I don’t.
Even so, I’ve tried looking for simpler, quicker ways to be a bucket-filler to my friends.
Sometimes it’s just a quick text with an old photo of the BK (before kids!) times. I have chickens, so I’ll occasionally drop off a random dozen eggs to a friend. Personalized book recommendations, helping someone clean the snow off their car, or just a genuine compliment are easy gestures that can mean a lot.
Once you start focusing on bucket-filling, you’ll see opportunities for it everywhere. Look for things that are spontaneous and simple. A moment of lightness in an otherwise dark time.
It’s strange, but it can be even nicer to fill up the bucket of a stranger. Even in our limited personal interactions, it’s possible to pass on a little good energy. I’ve noticed that just making the effort to chat with store clerks, even though it’s tough with layers of fabric and plexiglass in the way, feels like a small gesture of kindness right now.
Of course, there are plenty of ordinary things you can do to fill someone’s bucket. Let someone else go first in line at the store. Pay for the coffee of the person behind you in line at the drive-through. Give up a parking spot, drive slowly in neighborhoods.
But if you think outside the box, there a lots more ways to be a bucket filler. Last week, I was walking my dog and I came across a big pile of dog poop — from another dog — in someone’s yard. I had an extra poop bag, so I scooped it right up. It sound’s weird, but I felt pretty good knowing I had taken care of a mess so that someone else wouldn’t have to.
Don’t spill the bucket
If you’ve been paying attention to the news at all lately, you’ve noticed a lot of bucket spilling going on. Politically, it feels like we’re experiencing a full-on red-alert bucket-dump. Unfortunately, there’s a trickle-down effect and when you see and hear people being rude and nasty to each other, especially in a public setting, it makes it easier for you to be rude to people.
On top of that, we’ve all been at home, cooped up together a lot this year. More than once, I’ve snapped at my kids or husband for some silly little thing that could have been resolved with patience or a conversation.
What my son has helped me realize is that when you spill someone’s bucket, it spills your bucket also and leaves you feeling bad. I used to know this a long time ago, but somehow I forgot about it in the busyness of my adult life. Maybe you feel the same way.
This happened the other night when I had to call customer service for a website that prides itself on its simplicity. I needed to preview a document but the file wouldn’t load. I spent an hour on the phone to finally be told (by a very polite, nice young man) that there was no way anyone in the company could help me with this problem.
I made a few nasty, sarcastic comments and hung up the phone. The next day, I learned that a huge internet outage had occurred, causing many websites to have glitches. It wasn’t a big deal, but I felt bad for spilling the customer service dude’s bucket.
I’m not saying you need to be a doormat and never stick up for yourself. But most of the time, it’s better to be polite and gracious than it is to be a jerk.
Pay attention to your bucket
Finally, I’ve been noticing that when you look for it, you’re more likely to notice when people fill up your bucket.
When the cone-guy in the parking lot stepped up to help me out, it made me feel great. One of my neighbors has taken to running (literally) to our house to drop of steaming hot loaves of sourdough bread and though I’m used to it now, the first time it happened, it brought tears to my eyes. I’ve also started feeling much more appreciative of personal communications from my friends and family.
Of course, though, sometimes people will spill your bucket. It’s bound to happen — the snide comment or gesture that just ticks you off. I’m a teacher and sometimes I get emails from parents that just make my blood boil. But I try to minimize those times so they don’t take too much of a toll on my happiness.
Just remember, your bucket is a running total, not a zero-sum game. Try try to think of your spills as droplets and your fills as cupfuls.
Whether or not you believe that ‘we’re all in this together’, we all at least exist on planet earth together right now. And — if you’ll excuse me for making assumptions — I’m pretty sure we’d all love to feel just a little bit better. So look around and see what you can do to fill someone’s bucket. Bake that bread, send that text, pick up that trash. And when you do, take stock — did you feel your own bucket get a little fuller?
Thanks for reading. I hope you have a great, full-bucket week!