THE BLOG

Pay It Forward, Waiting to Pay It Back

02/18/2015 11:42 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

I was sitting in the Starbucks drive-thru in what is referred to as a dangerous neighborhood, right on the border of the city proper of my hometown of Detroit. I was on my way to school and I had a presentation in my English class -- the longer I sat idling, the more stressed I got. I was cursing the line of cars ahead of me, the chipper Starbucks employee who told me they were out of caramel sauce over the fuzzy speaker, the scarf I chose to wear in my hair in a last minute attempt at "flair."

When I finally got to the window, I was just... irritated. I handed the cashier my debit card, waited impatiently for my latte. She shook her head at me as I reached across the window.

"Your coffee has been paid for by the car in front of you." She said, handing my drink to me.

"My... what?" I replied, clearly confused.

"Your drink was paid for. The car in front of you paid for your drink. The car in front of that car had paid for hers... and well... we've had this going on for awhile now. A string of it." She was still holding my drink, hoping I might actually take it from her. But I wasn't ready.

"Wow!" I said, in disbelief.

"Yeah." She answered, her arm clearly getting tired. "Pay it forward, you know. That's what the lady said."

"I want to pay for the drink of the car behind me," I said immediately.

"You can't. Those drinks are comped. We are so behind because of this. We have to end the string here." She set the drink back down on the counter and stared at me.

"Okay, then I will pay for the drinks of the car two back," I said, helplessly, my mind searching for some resolution. For some reason, I had decided I couldn't leave that Starbucks without paying something. The manager came over and stood over the cashier's shoulder.

"Ma'am" (Really? When did I stop being 'Miss'?) she said, clearly worn out from the morning's activity. "Just take the drink."

"But -- but -- but..." I took my latte from her hand, but I was shaking my head. "I can't. I want to..."

"I know." The manager said, trying to be patient as she had nine cars lined up and was having to be both my psychologist and barista at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. "Take the drink. It's okay."

And since the people behind me looked like they were ready to ram me, I took the drink.

But I didn't like it.

And all the way to campus, I tried to figure out why.

The problem was, I came to realize, we are not -- I am not -- good at "taking." Anything. Is this a universal feeling? Or just a "mom" problem? As mothers, are we so used to giving, that when we "get" we just feel... weird? It makes us feel edgy, confused. Uncomfortable.

Or is it more about control -- that someone giving us something makes us feel discomfort because we are suddenly beleaguered with an unspoken debt to them? Do we, as a culture or as a gender, much prefer to be the ones who are owed, prefer to be the martyr who can say to someone else, "look what I do for you, look"?

In someone else giving us something, anything, and not asking for payback, the whole balance of who we are and the purpose we serve is disturbed. It is a gift, something to make us feel special and good, but it just leaves us feeling... unnerved.

And I was, unnerved.

I spent the morning thinking about ways I could "Pay it Forward," constructing elaborate plans in which I stepped in line in front of the register at the deli, saying "Here, this lunch is on me" to the next person in line and walking out with an air of humility. Or going into the pizza place and saying, "That thin crust, there -- I got it".

And then I questioned, truly, if I had simply lost the spirit of it all. Had I turned something that was done with no expectation or anticipated reciprocity into a way to assuage my own guilt? When the lady in front of me thought to pay it forward, did she really intend to saddle me with a debt that needed to paid... or else?

Of course she didn't.

The latte was a gift, something to be appreciated. A simple reminder that kindness is palpable and comes in a red cardboard cup, with whipped cream on top. Sometimes we have to just accept help, just allow ourselves to be on the receiving end.

A gift is not a contract to give back.

Sometimes we have to take our coffee and just say thank you.

So I drank the latte and I tried, with all my my might, to see it as a blessing from the most unexpected place, on the border of a city, my Detroit, that knows a thing or two about having nothing and going without.

Yesterday, I drank the latte and I worked on being thankful.

Today, I thought about going into Dunkin Donuts and buying a dozen glazed for the man behind me.

Listen, people, old habits can take a very long time to break.