Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pay It Forward: Free Coffee Edition

In case you haven't heard yet, there's a heartwarming tale of a chain of "pay it forward" customers as a Florida Starbucks late last week.

In summary, in case you don't know (or don't even know what "pay it forward" means): Paying it forward generally means doing a kind favor to someone else for no reason other than kindness; ideally, if someone has done an act of kindness to you, you do the same to a different person. Often, this is done by paying for the person's meal behind you at a place like, say, Starbucks. There are plenty of other ways of doing so, but this is the easiest and most common.*

As such, last week there was a 450+ chain of customers, all of whom "paid it forward." For over two days, anyone going to that particular line got their order paid for, and then they in turn paid for the next person in line--a long, unbroken succession of kindness and charity.  It was finally and abruptly stopped when one customer went there with the deliberate act of stopping this chain, refusing to pay for the next person's order.

Most of the stories you'll read about this incident, like the one I linked above, are focusing on the man who broke the chain--referring to him (indirectly, of course, because this is an unbiased news source) as a Grinch and a curmudgeon. And--horror of horrors--a crank.

The thing is--he's not wrong.

The entire point of the concept of "paying it forward" is to do a kind thing for someone else. Sure, maybe some day in the future it will come back to you, but maybe not. Getting rewarded is not the point or the main reason one should be doing this in the first place--it should simply be an inherent kindness, a reflection of one's good character.

Participating in one of these chains, of course, eliminates the entire point of the thing. If 1) you are socially pressured to pay it forward, rather than doing it from your own sense of kindness (supposedly, the Starbucks baristas were proactively asking people if they wanted to "pay it forward", and 2) you know you're going to be immediately rewarded, it's not an act of kindness or charity at all. Every single person who showed up at that Starbucks last week knew that their drink was going to be paid for, even if they did then pay for someone else's drink. That's not how it is supposed to work. Everyone involved paid for their order, and got their order paid for, roughly making a net gain or loss of not very much. It's a completely empty gesture that accomplishes nothing except free advertising for Starbucks and a feeling of self-satisfaction by the participants. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but the one thing it's not is kindness.

So, you say, what's the harm in participating in such things? While there's nothing directly wrong with it, empty acts like this crowd out actual, necessary acts of charity and kindness. How many people went to sleep that night feeling good about themselves, even though they did absolutely nothing of value? Did they feel as if they did their "good deed" for the day and didn't do anything else? Maybe, maybe not, but there's a good chance that at least some of the people in that line didn't do something else because they figured they had done their due diligence for the day.

I'm passionate about many things, but I'm also reasonably open-minded about most stuff. But one thing I can't stand is the empty gesture. A lot of people do a lot of meaningless things in this world, then use said things as "proof" that they are good and kind people. That's not how it should work--your actions should speak for themselves. There's also nothing wrong with doing things to make yourself feel better--everyone needs a self-esteem boost now and then, so long as it doesn't become your dominant personality trait. But if you're doing such things, do something meaningful and worthwhile. Sure, go ahead and dump ice on your head, but make sure you can still sign the check afterwards.

The Pledge: We're not living in a better world because you did something that made you feel good about yourself. This world is already full of empty gestures and meaningless actions all in the name of self-gratification. Don't just be kind; do something meaningfully kind.

*Of course, the biggest "pay it forward" charity decision of all time is calling this a "good movie."

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