Responding to the Blowback on Paying it Forward

I’ve long been a fan of paying it forward. I think it’s a delightful gift to do something kind for someone else that is unexpected. I try to do this whenever I can. I do it when I’m especially happy and high on life. I also do it when I’m down and low on life. Both serve different functions for me. The first is sharing the joy that I already feel. The second is giving joy and feeling better about myself because of it.

Here’s the deal. Way too often in daily life we don’t take the time to see one another. We don’t take the time to engage with one another. The kindness of a stranger can truly make someone’s day and I’m cool with it making you feel better about yourself as well. Why not feel good about the good we put in the world?

I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine the kindness I show chaining out beyond the people to whom I am kind. I imagine that the person whose order I paid for it at Starbucks might be kinder to the grocery store clerk who checks them out an hour later or might leave an extra tip for their server at lunch. I like to think that my kindness makes the person who receives it smile, and hopefully have a better day.

I’m frustrated by the memes and posts about “don’t do this; use your money here instead.” as if that was the only choice. For me many times this is a both/and. Not only do I pay for the person behind me at Starbucks, I also give a larger tip to my server, or pay into the lunch fund at a local school. To be clear, I’m a great tipper. If you’re in a service job, I appreciate you, so I share what I can. Making people feel guilty about being kind makes no sense to me. We need a lot more joy. Spreading any kind of joy is good.

Paying it forward isn’t just about buying something for someone else. It’s about sharing a smile. It’s about saying hello. It’s about holding a door for someone struggling with packages. It’s about helping someone pick up items they’ve dropped. It’s about acknowledging other human beings, their existence, and their value.

When I worked at Savanah Bee Company in Boulder, Colorado a couple years ago, I often saw a man selling roses by the side of the street, as I drove to work. When I could, when I had cash from tips, I would buy a rose from him. One day I had a few more tips, so I bought six roses. After I parked, as I walked to the store, I gifted everyone I saw with a rose. Five of the people were unhomed individuals sitting on the street. One woman grabbed my hand and thanked me. She said she couldn’t remember the last time someone had done something kind just to do it. She said it made her feel seen. Some might say people without homes don’t need roses. They need food, water, socks, gloves, warm coats, a place to sleep, etc. While all that is true, they also need to be seen. That day, I had the capacity to give her a rose, to say “I see you”.

My point is this: everyone needs to be noticed. Everyone benefits from a bit of joy. Everyone benefits from a show of kindness. We make the world a better place for both the giver and the receiver. So don’t let anyone tell you you should be doing this instead of that. It’s not their business. Just give what you can, when you can, with an open heart.

Paying it forward is never the wrong option. Paying it forward is never a bad decision.

So, pay it forward in the way that works best for you. If you feel it, do it. The world, or at least someone’s day, will be brighter because of it.

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