Once in a while, I'm not a nice person.
OK, OK...I'm frequently not a nice person. I complain about The Way Things Are (a lot,) I can be cranky and unpleasant, and I totally stink at remembering to be grateful for all that I have.
Lately, it feels as if I've had more than my share to complain about. From money woes to banks behaving badly to politicians who can't seem to do the right thing, life these days is a veritable smorgasbord of suckiness.
The other day, as my son Evan and I were out doing errands, the background noise in my head continued to remind me of How Bad Things Are, as if I might forget. Like a scratched vinyl record, the latest round of unfair events kept repeating, over and over, in spite of my efforts to silence them.
My mental pity party was interrupted by my son's voice: "Can we stop somewhere for lunch, Mom? I'm really hungry." Because we'd left the house in a rush, Evan didn't have a chance to eat breakfast.
I thought about my anemic finances. I had $130 in my wallet which had to last until next pay day, and I still needed gas, groceries, and dog food. We had no business stopping anywhere to eat. Still, Evan was hungry. What sort of mother would I be if I didn't get him something to eat? I decided to stop at a local burger place.
My mood worsened when I saw the manager pull a table apart from two others, leaving only six inches between us and a table of young people. I wanted to be as far away as possible from other people and yet, here we were, forced to practically share a table with three total strangers.
As we looked at the menu, I mentally tabulated our meal, feeling guilty for what seemed an extravagance in a week full of nothing but scarcity.
Our food arrived as the people next to us were given their bill. A young man in the group took a credit card out of his wallet and handed the bill back to the manager to pay it.
"I'm sorry," said the manager, handing the bill and the credit card back to him. "Our credit card machine isn't working today. You'll have to pay with cash." He left the bill on the table and walked away as the three of them began checking purses, pockets, and wallets for enough money to pay the bill.
Since we were sitting so close to one another, I could hear their panicked words at not having enough cash.
And that's when it happened, the granddaddy-of-all-nudges to do something good: You should pay their bill.
Seriously? Me? I can't afford to pay their bill. I'm worried about having to pay my own!
The nudge became more insistent: Pay their bill.
But what if they think I'm crazy if I tell them I'm going to pay their bill?
PAY. THEIR. BILL.
Fine! I'll pay the bill if they don't have enough money.
I took a deep breath and turned toward the table next to ours.
"Excuse me, I don't mean to be rude, but do you have enough money to pay your bill?"
All three of them looked at each other, unsure how to respond. A young man in the group said, "Well, actually, we don't."
Oh boy. Now I was definitely committed. Remembering the insistence of my do-good nudge, I blurted out, "I'm going to buy your lunch."
"I'll pay for your lunch. How much is it?"
I peered over at the check. $31.02. I felt relief that I had enough cash in my wallet to pay for both our food and theirs.
I grabbed the check, feeling completely certain of my decision.
"I'm totally serious about this. I know this sounds crazy, but something just told me to pay for your lunch, so that's what I'm doing."
They looked at each other in disbelief, then took turns protesting: You can't do that! We'll figure it out. It's OK. One of us will go find an ATM.
I pulled out some cash, put it with their bill, and handed it to the manager, who gave me a puzzled look. "They're a little short of cash so I'm paying for their lunch."
When the group realized that I did, indeed, pay for their lunch, they were relieved and appreciative. One girl said, "I just don't understand why you did that. No one would pay the bill of total strangers!"
"Well, maybe they should," I said. By this point, I was feeling great, as if I'd just received a booster shot of compassion, generosity, and goodwill.
The young man said, "Thank you so much for this. How can we repay you?"
"Just be happy about it, and do something nice for someone else when you have a chance."
They left amid a chorus of thank-yous and promises to do good deeds of their own.
Evan, who had witnessed the whole thing, was blown away. "Wow, that was really nice of you! I can't believe you paid for their lunch."
Suddenly, I was filled with all of the reasons why I HAD to pay for their lunch. I hadn't seen them before, but now they were crystal clear to me, as if I'd just become part of a great knowing. I wasn't about to miss this teachable moment for my son.
"You know, Evan, there's so much in the world that needs our help. I get discouraged a lot of the time because usually, the problems are too big for a person like me to fix. Helping out those people? That was one problem that I could fix."
Driving home, Evan and I continued to talk about good deeds, and how fabulous you feel after doing one, and how you don't need to have tons of money to help others. We imagined all three of those young people doing their own good deeds, spreading positive ripples farther and farther into a world of people starved for a touch of goodness and light.
Honestly, there is nothing that I could have bought for $30.00 that would have given me greater joy.
*photo by Lisa Kern, 2011