Pay it Forward, Waiting to Pay it Back

I was sitting in the Starbucks Drive-thru in what is reverently referred to as the hood, right on the border 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” that just screamed “hobo” now, more or less. Okay, more.

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 9 cars lined up and was having to be both my psychologist and barrista at 9 am 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 cardbord 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.




  1. It’s not about “taking” as much as it is about receiving a compliment, a gift, a kind gesture. Gracious acceptance seems to be something no one is taught these days, with most people being at one end of the spectrum or the other: a sense of entitlement (the child who never says “thank you” for a gift because it’s his birthday and therefore you owe him) to the adult who becomes flustered or uncomfortable.

  2. You are right about all of it. I know my children are good at saying thank you, this was a priority. But I think that automatic feeling of—I must do something in return, negates the whole concept just as much as not saying thank you. Thanks for reading, Kansas Kate! 🙂

  3. It is unnerving! (I love the way you write.) Recently, we moved into a new house. 18months before that, we moved across the country. No friends. No family. So needless to say this more recent move had us relying on our “new” friends. Friends that didn’t know us that well and didn’t owe us a damn thing. But they were willing to help. They all chipped in money and hired movers for us. Whaaaat!?? We were beyond grateful and well… unnerved. Back home, everyone got together on moving day, rolled up their sleeves and lifted large, heavy items and tried not to throw their backs out. That was acceptable. Paying for a moving company. Unacceptable. But here’s how it weighs out: Take a full day of work from someone- in our case, married men with kids, OR take money from them. The question we came to realize was: Why is money valued more precious than time? Why are we ok taking these men away from their families for a full day, but we’re not ok with taking money so they can a) get out of manual labor, b) spend the day with their loved ones, and c) not risk getting injured? I’m still battling that one in my head.
    So all in all, we are grateful, and still a little unnerved, and desperately wanting to pay it back or pay it forward. But the reality is… A move with two toddlers and two businesses, I’m just too exhausted to come up with any great “pay it back” plans. So I am forced to graciously accept and keep the idea of those plans in my back pocket.
    After reading your article though, I think you’re right… I lost the meaning of this kind gesture. Take it as a gift and enjoy it. Relax. The move is stressful enough. We will pay it back, or forward, when the time comes. But for right now, don’t ruin it. It’s like stressing over thank you notes while you’re on your honeymoon. Not cool.
    PS: I think you’re paying it forward through your writing. I just read the post from Nov 26th of last year about body issues and believing when your husband tells you you’re beautiful. It was simply beautiful and obviously inspired many women. Keep it up, girl. I bet all of those husbands will be thanking you 😉

  4. No matter what the picture with the skinny girls are a lot better the skinny girl will always be better. As for the plus size girls guys are going to tell you you’re beautiful because they don’t want to hurt your feelings

    I would never date a plus size girl just my opinion not really trying to judge but just in my opinion the skinny girls will always be better. I never found plus size girls attractive

  5. I know so many guys who tell their girlfriends or wives that they’re beautiful when she is a plus size girl they just don’t want to hurt your feelings this skinny girl will always be better I will always back them up. That’s just how it is today and society if you’re not skinny go home just telling the truth

  6. It’s not about who or what is better. It’s about preference. You can prefer skinny girls over curvy ones. As long as that preference doesn’t equate to your tearing down those that don’t fit your preference. Some people like thin, some like super fit and muscular, some like soft and fluffy. It isn’t about a ranking. It’s no different than preferring blonds to red heads. Thank goodness we don’t all like the same things. Variety is the beauty of humanity

  7. I just stumbled across your blogs. These are awesome. I cannot wait to read more of them. I have never had the free cup of coffee or meal paid for & thats ok. I have always wanted to do that for somone behind me but it seems I always have that angry person in a hurry that honks if I take to long at the drive thru. So I never do it. But you know that may be the person who needs it most. I am gonna take care of their check next time. Thanks for sharing.

  8. THANK YOU for writing this – it had me in tears! All my life I’ve struggled with self esteem issues, mostly because of my weight – which is funny because I now look at pictures of the 20 year-old me and think, “Damn – you looked good! What we’re you hung up about?!” haha. Before I got pregnant with my second son I was feeling particularly depressed because of my body – weight, stretch marks, parts starting to sag, etc. I would avoid being in pictures because I didn’t like the way I looked. Pregnancy put that on hold (not a time to lose weight!) and now FINALLY, for the first time in my life, I’m starting to accept my body as it is. No matter what size I am, no matter how many stretch marks I have, I deserve to be happy. I deserve to look cute and feel good. My weight does not define me. It’s reading blogs, articles, and posts like this that helped me reach my turning point – knowing I’m not alone and hearing other people’s stories of how they came to accept themselves. Thanks for sharing your story 🙂


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