Several years ago during my undergrad, I was often seen wasting my student loan funds at Starbucks buying my morning’s overpriced coffee before class because I needed it. I don’t even want to think about how much money I had spent in Grande Almond Milk Lattes during those years, but one thought that I could never ignore was the time I broke the chain of paying it forward at the Starbucks drive-thru.
For those who may not be aware of the phenomena, sometimes when you go to the Starbucks drive-thru, a customer in front of you may have a spontaneous urge to act in kindness and will pay your tab, so that when you pull up to the window to pay and get your order, the barista will say the car in front of you paid your tab. There is then the opportunity to pay the tab for the car behind you, and so on and so forth. There have been many occurrences of this happening at Starbucks drive thrus across the United States, one setting a record of paying it forward 160 times in a row!
So on one of my excessive coffee run days, I was delighted to find out that the car in front of me had paid for my drink. Unfortunately, I did not know about the pay-it-forward gesture at the time, and didn’t even bother to think about maybe offering to pay for the person behind me. I could blame it on the barista for not asking me if I wanted to pay-it-forward, but honestly I believe that my inability to consider returning the gesture to someone else speaks to my level of selfishness and lack of awareness at that time in my life.
I have no idea how many people had paid-it-forward that day until I broke it, and I’m also embarrassed of how many years later it took for me to one day realize how I dropped the ball on this. But then I realize that I’m not even the same person I was those several years ago. I have gone through many cell deaths and regenerations since then, have created new neural pathways in my brain, and I have learned from my mistakes, this being one of them.
So as I have grown into a more conscious way of living, I realized that I owed a great debt to others I have not even met yet; to give back to those I have received from with no expectation of receiving anything back. Basically paying-it-forward in this Starbucks drive-thru of life.
That is why I practice Seva – the act of selfless service in Karma yoga. Its not that I feel guilty about not paying-it-forward in itself, but because I was not consciously aware at the time of my connection to others, and what others have selflessly given me, whether through their time, energy, money, love, thoughts, etc. At that period in my life, I was a just the typical self-absorbed college undergrad with an inflated ego (no offense to other college undergrads, I also know college grads, post-grads, and those with no college education with inflated egos as well). I recognize now how to live conscious and be present, Be Here Now, as Ram Dass would say. And part of being more self-aware in this moment meant for me a recognition for those who have given to me not so that I would pay them back one day, or just forget them and their gestures, but to shape me into a person who would give back to society.
As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child”, I know I am who I am because of all who have in one way or another shaped and influenced me into the being I am, who have shared this path of life with me and helped guide the way. This includes my family, my teachers, mentors, friends.. and this also means those who have hurt me, caused me harm, or ignored me completely – for they too offered me learning lessons and opportunities for growth, despite their negative influence. Negative influences have taught me lessons like identifying toxic friends, family, relationships, workplaces, etc., as well as lessons on how to face adversity head on without being destroyed by it.
This had me think about my influence on others and society. That person behind me at Starbucks could have been financially strapped or even recently homeless but needed some source of energy to get through their work-day (as a sufferer of chronic fatigue and low energy I do believe that coffee is an essential item just like other foods). Or maybe they had a rough day and a kind gesture would at least offer them a sense of love and belonging – it feels good to be taken care of every once in a while. This is why I practice seva – it reminds me to get out of the bubble of selfishness and to practice extending my gratitude for what life has given me – both the good for nurturing my soul, and the bad for its learning opportunities and its catalyst to personal growth.
So whether its coffee for a stranger on me, a warm hug for a friend, or telling someone causing harm to go love themselves, Cheers.