The Generous Stranger Paying It Forward

free coffeeGenerosity can be a really good thing.  Being that way in spirit, without getting anything back, can sometimes come back and bring us positive things anyway.

I’ve written about to this on occasion, and usually it involves helping those are that are not as fortunate.   For example, on occasion I’ve given to the homeless.  Also, I’ve seen others show some real generosity to random people who clearly needed a few breaks.

However, I have to say, I’m not sure if I’ve written enough about good things that others have done for me.  Well, there was a very simple yet unexpected example of such a thing recently.  I almost didn’t know what to do, because this hasn’t really happened before.

I was in my car on a chilly morning, wanting to get some coffee before starting the day.  So, I decided to swing by the drive-through to make my purchase.  Coincidentally, it was the same place I described in a prior fun post on picking up coins at the drive-through.   In this case, I wasn’t going to play such games, but wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do so anyway.

The order was made through the speaker, and I had to wait in line to pay and pick up the coffee.  After a short wait, the typical drive-through drill was about to take place.  You roll down the window, give them the money, they give you the food.  Or just coffee in my case.

This time, the guy just gave me coffee and said “thank you!”

I paused, and mentioned that I had yet to pay.  My credit card was in hand, ready to be given to him.

He then smiled, and said that it was taken care of by “the last guy”.  I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, so I again told him that I had yet to pay.

As it turns out, the guy told me that the SUV that was in line ahead of me had actually paid for me.  Still perplexed, I commented that it was “too bad” that he paid.  There was actually a bit of guilt, and I wondered how the guy could smile while telling me that the previous customer accidentally paid for my coffee!

Silly me.   He then explained that no, this wasn’t an accident.   The customer had apparently said that he would like to pay for the next car’s order, whatever it was.   How nice of that person!

You know, I hate to say that I had a fleeting thought that it would’ve been great if I had placed a big order :)  However, that quickly dissipated and I realized that it was pretty cool what that person did.  Totally generous, and the person was getting nothing directly out of it.

Sometime soon, I’ll buy a total stranger a cup of coffee or meal too.

Have you ever done this for a stranger, or had someone do this for you?

Giving to the Homeless: Yes or No?

What to do?

Giving to Homeless: Yes or No?

Do you ever see any homeless people – or people one might assume are homeless – asking for money?

I suppose it depends on where you live, and where you might work. For me, in a comfortable suburban locale, this isn’t part of the scene. However, working downtown, I do run into people asking for money once in a while. They’re typically sitting on the sidewalk or leaning against a building, looking disheveled and way older than they probably are, dressed in layers of worn out clothes, with a change bucket or tray, and a cardboard sign asking for money.

Whenever I see someone asking for money, the reaction on whether or not to give can vary by the day and situation. I’m always moved in some way, but there are times when I’m more likely to help than others.  As I’ve shared before, anybody can be generous and help out those in need. Of course, we’re human ourselves and have our own survival instinct, so most of us don’t give it all away. At least I don’t.

What do you do when you see such a situation?

Here’s my how mind works, with this quick thought process I go through in a matter a few seconds when I see a typical situation of a homeless person on the street asking for money, spelled out step-by-step:

  1. Feel sympathy. I truly don’t like to see people that are miserable and suffering. My initial thought is not to overanalyze reasons for their plight, but to simply feel bad that I see someone living such a bad existence. I instantly feel a touch of pain for the person.
  2. Think about my immediate needs.  Here’s where self-oriented thinking comes into play. There are two ways I go with this:
    • Rejection. If I’m rushing to get somewhere, which I usually am if it’s a workday, I just might shut down any thoughts of helping. My instant thought in that case would be, “I don’t have time for this”. I think subconsciously, I’m thinking of my own needs and making sure that I get where I need to be – so I don’t end up in that person’s position. Honestly, this is probably the case most of the time, even with that instant sympathetic feeling happening that I mentioned before. In this case, I’ll walk right by and pretend not to notice.  In which case, I feel a tiny bit of guilt, but then suppress the thought and move on with my day and forget about it. The process stops here in these cases.
    • Consideration. These are times when I’m not as rushed, or I see someone who looks particularly in need. If I see somebody who’s really old, I might stop in my tracks and think about offering some help. In these cases, I’ll briefly get a wave of thinking “maybe this one is different”.
  3. Deliberate. Here’s where I start to think, should I help this person? I’m almost ashamed to say, but my instant thought is “I don’t want to part with my hard-earned money”. It’s kind of an instinctive, survival of the fittest reaction. However, I always follow that with a thought along the lines of “yeah, well kindness is a good thing and I should be better than that. Besides, imagine how that person is suffering, and it’s for the greater good to think of others in need”
  4. Decide. At this point, if I hadn’t already walked past as I noted above, and had reached the deliberation stage, I’ll make an instant decision. If the person seems to be young, healthy, or highly confident – they won’t get anything. If the person seems older, sickly, or begs – I break down and give something. It might be a dollar or two. Perhaps food might be the best thing to give, though I’m not always carrying it around with me.

How often do I give? Maybe 5% of the time.

I’ve heard all kinds of arguments for not giving people anything. A more civil way of saying this is comes from folks who say they’d rather give to “organizations” than individuals. A less civil way of saying this comes from people who say things along the lines of “why can’t they just stop being lazy and actually find a job”. Of course, this ignores the reality that jobs aren’t easy to find for everyone depending where they live, and some people are in such sorry shape physically and/or mentally that it might not be an option anyway.

Ultimately, we have to look out for ourselves and our families to survive, first and foremost. You can see this view evidenced by my rough estimate of a 5% or so frequency of giving. However, some compassion and occasional help for the destitute makes us human, right?

My Questions for You.

Do you ever give to homeless people – or would you, if you saw one?

Do you have any experiences of giving that you specifically recall? What do you remember from it?

Do you think it’s selfish to totally refuse to help such people in all instances?

Do You Buy Girl Scout Cookies?

Buying girl scout cookies is a part of Americana. Every year, there is a time when little salespeople ask grown ups if they would like to buy a box – or boxes – of cookies. Quite often, it’s grown ups – the parents, actually – who ask other adults if they would like to buy girl scout cookies from their child.

Personally, I think it’s a nice tradition. Something about it just seems right, like it’s a normal annual ritual where we try to be a good sport and buy a box or two to help out. Of course, not everybody sees it that way, and some see it differently than me.  A recent article in US News discussed, interestingly enough, ways to avoid buying girl scout cookies in the workplace.

Here is the advice they gave, for like-minded folks:

  • Claim that you are on a diet
  • Say that you can’t afford them
  • Pretend to have already bought some
  • Stage a preemptive strike (bring up conversation topic that sends the coworker running)
  • Become an unapproachable person

As far as those last 3 bits of advice are concerned, the one word that came to my mind was: Seriously?

I will go on the assumption that at least part of that article was tongue in cheek, written to amuse. However, I have to say that the first two tips are reasonable. It’s fair to say that you’re on a diet, or that you’re on a budget and can’t afford it. That’s probably true for many people. If you feel strongly about not wanting to buy something, you shouldn’t have to.

However, like I said up front, I’m a fan of the tradition. I don’t care about any bigger picture issues, it’s more about the notion that these children are putting themselves out there to try to sell cookies. It’s hard to say no to a kid, at least for me.

Now, I haven’t always been like that. Here’s my evolution as a girl scout cookie buyer.

Right Out of College -

I wasn’t hit up by coworkers too often when it came to girl scout cookies. Perhaps it’s because my peers were relatively young too and didn’t happen to have kids at the time, or maybe it was because the more senior people didn’t want to ask us because they felt guilty doing so. Or, perhaps they thought we couldn’t afford it:) Anyway, I didn’t buy many cookies at that time.

Established in the Workplace, But Not a Parent

After working awhile, I had of course gained additional responsibility and worked in a different capacity than I did right out of college. Accordingly, I got asked more by coworkers to buy girl scout cookies. My attitude then was to think it was kind of cool, but I was leery of spending too much and didn’t want to part with my money. If I actually met the kid, or knew the coworker really well – or it was my boss – I would buy a box. Otherwise, which was most of the time, I would avoid buying the cookies without question.

Established in the Workplace, But I AM a Parent

Fast forward to today. I happen to be the parent of a little girl who now sells girl scout cookies during this time of year. It’s not an intrusive thing, just involves getting parents to get others to buy them, and the kids will go to a restaurant or grocery store to have a short shift of selling them, for like 2 hours.

Anyway, my view on this has changed of late, as you might imagine. When I know that my daughter has a sign up sheet for cookies to sell, I of course want her to have fun with it. Also, I have to admit, I just so slightly think about the personal aspect of someone saying yes or no. After all, this involves my kid! If somebody says yes to buying a box, it’s cool.

I think about this now when somebody asks me. I think about how behind that coworker you may or may not be good friends with, is a little kid they care about who’s simply selling cookies. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m always guilted in buying them. Excuses #1 and #2 from the list above are valid:) However, being a parent now makes me more empathetic and happy to help out. I’ll happily buy a box or two from multiple people.

In the end, I see it as just one of those things we can take part in and be a good sport about. Besides, some of those cookies are pretty good – especially Samoas :)

My Questions for You

What do you do when people ask you to buy girl scout cookies on behalf of their kid?

Do you have a strong feeling on this either way?

Bonus Question: What’s your favorite girl scout cookie?

A Day in the City Well Worth the Investment

Recently, we went downtown (Chicago) for a fun summer afternoon and evening.  With the weather seasonably warm that day, instead of scorching hot as it has been on other days in the summer, it was a great time to go into the city. My goal was to do it while being reasonable with spending, but I wasn’t going to be cheap about it. Family time was the plan.

It turned out to be great. We did a lot of great things, and my main interest was providing my 8 year old daughter with some experiences she can remember and learn from. We first went to the Art Institute, getting to see some fantastic exhibits. There were paintings from Rembrandt, Monet, Renoir, and others.  Then, we went to a couple of other landmarks in town, before eating dinner taking a cruise of the Chicago River.

Great stuff, great memories!

The whole thing cost about $85, excluding driving costs (but including $28 parking!). Pretty good for a full day downtown. My daughter got some culture, got to see the hustle and bustle of downtown (we live in the suburbs), and had fun. What more could you ask for!

Well, one of the other things that she noticed downtown was the small number of homeless people. Now to me it was a small number of people, but to her it was eye opening.

Each time we walked by a homeless person sitting on the ground, with a sign and a cup for money, she wanted to stop and read what they had written. She was stunned to see grown ups looking so helpless. I could see it in her eyes,  just feeling bad about what she saw. She would go quiet for a minute or two as we walked away. Admittedly, she did ask me to give them money but I didn’t. It’s not that I don’t believe in that – rather, I absolutely do, as I’ve discussed here a few times.  Instead, I told her that I do give once in a while, but we just can’t do it all the time.

At the end of the evening, I asked her what she remembered about the day, and she talked excitedly about some of the things we did and saw. She was truly excited about the experience, which was cool!  However, she also quietly mentioned the homeless people she saw, and how that wasn’t fun to see.

We then got into a discussion about homeless people. She asked me some questions about why those people were homeless, how come they didn’t have anything to eat, and how come nobody was helping them.  I did my very best with the discussion. These are hard things for some kids to grasp, especially if young and not usually exposed to such harsh realities.

She then spoke up more, and proclaimed that when she gets older, she would help all the homeless people she saw. She said that it’s not fair that people should be starving, especially older people, and that she’d help some people when she got older. Further, she mentioned that she might spend all her money if she had to help people in need.

Now, while I don’t want her to ever give away all her money, I’m thrilled that at such a young age (8), she’s selfless enough to be willing to put helping others at such a high priority. She truly cares and is genuinely willing to help, which delighted me. I’ll admit that when I was younger I felt bad for such homeless people I saw, but I never talked about giving away all my money like she did. Not that I had much, of course, nor does she for that matter:) But the generosity is great to see, and I’m glad that there’s been an improvement from one generation to the next.

All in all, it was a great day. Fantastic memories, and a great learning experience!

Memorable Examples of Witnessing Generosity

Have you ever seen something so startling and unusual that it totally made an impression on you?

I saw something along those lines last week, and it totally made an impression. There’s a money angle to this, which is why I think it’s applicable here. Plus, it illustrates people’s willingness to be generous, so I’d like to share this experience.

So, I was on my way to the train station downtown (Chicago), trying to get there on time to make the scheduled departure. I only take a train once in a while, but when I do I’m just trying to get to the station quickly as I can. Anyway, as stepped closer to the station I noticed that people ahead that were either walking toward me or in the same direction were glancing at a something off to the side (my right).

As I got closer, I was surprised by what I saw: a disheveled old man crying.

My first reaction, I have to admit, was something along the lines of “Ok…..what’s this guy’s problem?”

Then, getting closer, I saw that he was an older gentleman. That reality gave me pause, as you just don’t see too many random guys crying on the street, let alone older men. I winced as I realized what was going on.

He was crying and asking people for food since he was hungry.

The man didn’t look homeless from a distance, but as I looked at him it appeared that he was. Regardless, just seeing this guy so distraught asking for help in that way just really hit me in the gut, so to speak. Wow, I felt bad for him. This guy could have been someone’s dad, brother….or even grandfather. Certainly, he was once somebody’s son.

How can we as a society let this happen, where an older man is on the street crying while begging for food?

Ok – I know – not exactly a feel good story so far.  However, it does get better:)

I wanted to do something to help him but I had no food with me, except this banana that was in my work bag that I took in the morning but forgot to eat during the day. I was certain it was all bruised and probably mashed a bit so I didn’t offer it, even though in hindsight he might have liked it anyway.

So, I grabbed my wallet and looked at what bills I had, and saw that I had a twenty and two ones.  Judge me if you want (it’s ok), but my immediate reaction at the time was hesitation about dropping the $20 bill on this situation. Rather, I thought about contributing the $2. But hey, $2 is still money that could help the guy, right?

Right then, a teenage (or young college) age girl walked by with her friends, and stopped to check out the situation. She opened up a backpack, and pulled out a bag that was from a local sandwich shop. Perhaps she bought a sandwich and was taking it to the train to eat on the train? 

What she did next was very cool: She opened the paper bag right in front of me and pulled out a sandwich and bag of chips. Which, as you might guess by now, she gave to the man.

I was basically watching this as I was getting out my wallet to give the $2.  Quickly, it became apparent that the kid offered up something that would be more meaningful to the guy.

But, I gave him the small amount of cash anyway and walked away. He didn’t say much to me, as he seemed caught up in getting the food and saying thank you to the kid. Which is fine, I don’t care. Just happy to see that he got that food from someone. The scene reminded me of a similar situation I’d seen before, thought that didn’t include a distressed person.

All the while after I walked onward to the station, I was struck by what I saw. I gave a little but not much, and was wondering if I could have done more. The kid was great! Most other people just walked on by, pausing long enough to see what was going on but then moving along. We’ve probably all done that at times, I know I have. But when you stop and really pay attention and see what’s going on, this was a crying older guy who was hungry. I mean, that’s no small thing!

All this being said, my big takeaway was this: the kid was more generous and willing to help the elderly guy than the “adults” out there. I guess that includes being more giving that me in that situation, too. Thus, maybe the age old mantra that the younger generations “just don’t get it” is wrong. From what I saw, they “got it” even more than people in my generation (Gen X). That’s a good thing, and I’m glad to see it!

My Questions for You:

Have you ever seen any situations that just jumped out you, in terms of another person having a truly dire financial situation?

Along those lines, have you ever seen an act of generosity that was truly great and that made you proud of the giver – whether you know the person or not?

Do we Incur “Debt” Through our Childhood?

Many of us, at one time or another in our lives, have had some debt we had to repay.  Along the way, we (ideally) try to eliminate it as quickly as possible. Some of us even take the step of using a debt snowball.  Whether it takes the form of student loans, car loans, or a mortgage – we independently make decisions to allow debt can into our lives at different stages of adulthood.

What about debt incurred during childhood?

At first glance, that sounds awful. But think about it: when you were born, you needed nourishment and shelter just like anybody else. Beyond that, you needed far more time and attention than even child just a bit older. You just weren’t able to take care of yourself and provide for your own needs. You needed help; without it, survival would be a moot point.

As an older kid, when you could function independently, you didn’t survive independently.  Whether it was both of your parents, just one of your parents, or another guardian – someone was there to make sure that you had food to eat, and a roof over your head.

Even as a young adult, you still might be getting help from your parents. Maybe they let you move in with them at some point, or helped you with short term loan. Or, perhaps they helped defray some costs for your education or wedding. Maybe they just give you timely advice and nothing else at all. Either way, while you don’t need them the same way as you did when you were a kid, they might provide help to you in some way.

Hopefully, along each of these stages, there was a strong level of love and emotional support accompanying the caretaking.

Many people might say that these actions are the obligations of a parent. I would agree. Certainly, before the age of 18, they are unquestionably the obligations of parents. We all must take care of our kids and make sure they are provided for. Not excessively spoiled (as I witnessed recently), but taken care of. It’s a parent’s job. Hopefully it’s a parent’s pleasure as well.

Regardless of this parental duty, the reality is that for many of us, there was a ton of time, effort, and emotion in raising us. Probably at least some hard-earned money as well.  A lot of sacrifices were made for our benefit.

The way I view it, if we receive such care, then we’re indebted to our parents.

What does this “debt” mean? Well, it could mean helping them as they get older.  Perhaps ensuring that they can be driven to the doctor if need be.  Or, maybe it’s physically caring for them if they need help. Maybe it’s allowing them to spend quality time spoiling their grandkids.

Or, perhaps, it’s a just matter of picking up the phone to talk. Tell them what’s going on in your life, and ask them about theirs.

Not everybody was fortunate enough to grow up with 2 parents, or even one parent, to help them. Even those with parents or a single parent might not have been given a loving childhood. For those folks, it’s hard for any of us to judge your thoughts about owing anybody anything at all. Lives can be complicated, and not everyone has had a good experience. Maybe you feel like you’re owed something and missed out.

That said, however, many of us have in fact been lucky. Parents who have invested so much of their heart and soul – not to mention time and money –into their kids deserve to be “paid” back in some way. It doesn’t have to be monetary, obviously, but they’re owed some time, attention, and support as they get older.

Now, to be sure, many parents don’t want to burden their kids, and don’t want kids to be obligated. That’s very honorable, of course.

But voluntarily repaying them through caring about them and appreciating all they did might make them feel good.

What do you think?

Anybody Can be Generous

You can’t judge a book by it’s cover.

Well, maybe sometimes you can. There are times when you know when something is appealing or unappealing, positive or negative, just by looking at it. It’s often said that generalizations are there for a reason. Right?

Well, I had a couple of experiences over the last few weeks that got me thinking about this, particularly when it comes to generosity with money. Interestingly, they involved homeless people.

Both instances occurred in downtown Chicago, right of Michigan Avenue – otherwise known as “The Magnificent Mile”. It’s proximate to upscale hotels, stores, and shopping. Nevertheless – or perhaps because of that reason - you will find a few homeless people hanging about in the area.

The first case involved a homeless guy who is often sitting in a particular location, which I walk past on occasion. This guy is scruffy, weather beaten, and disheveled in appearance each time I have seen him sitting there. He looks to be in his 40′s, though it’s hard to tell because the outside elements have a way of aging people.

Anyway, one day recently I walked past him, and noticed that instead of his customary behavior of rattling a coin cup, he was eating. Yes, it looked like he was eating a breakfast sandwich! Good, I thought, he’s not starving.

Then, he did something that I found interesting. He took very tiny little pieces of the sandwich, and tossed them to some small birds that were hopping about on the sidewalk. My initial reaction was, “What’s the matter with him? He’s lucky enough to get food, and he’s giving it away to some birds! He’s nuts.”

After thinking about it, I came to another conclusion: the homeless guy is actually generous. Here’s a guy who’s resorting to begging on the street, looking ragged and destitute, yet he’s sharing food with these little birds. Maybe he relates to them in some way. They’re out of their element in the urban environment, and basically have to take any opportunity they can to pick up some food. That’s how they survive. That’s how HE survives also.

The second occurrence happened last week, within a few blocks. It was the lunch hour, and most people were professionally dressed and quickly going where they needed to go. This apparently included three women that were headed down the sidewalk in the opposite direction as me. In between these women and I was an older homeless woman.

As these women approached, my mind very quickly made a few assessments, in a matter of seconds. First, they were very attractive, very well dressed women in their mid-20′s; two of them had sunglasses on to accent their professional outfits. Second, they looked – shall we politely say – snooty?

The women strutted along, looking like Charlie’s Angels. Then, abruptly, they stopped in front of the homeless woman. One of the ladies warmly smiled, held up a small bag in her hands, and nicely asked the homeless lady, “Would you like a croissant? I just bought it”

The homeless lady slowly took it, with a dazed look in her eyes. She then slowly walked off in the same direction I was going. Meanwhile, the 3 young women walked past me and went on their way as well.

I thought to myself: even though they looked as if they were arrogant, self-absorbed people, they were actually very kind and nice women. They saw the older homeless lady, and didn’t walk right by her. Instead, they showed compassion, and took a moment to help her.

What did I take away from these experiences?

  1. I remembered that it’s important to realize that there are, in fact, those times when you really can’t judge a book by it’s cover
  2. Generosity can take many forms, and can come from people in different circumstances
  3. You don’t have to be wealthy to be generous in spirit

It was refreshing to see.

Random Acts of Kindness Can Bring Riches of Happiness and Experience

Many of us are so busy in our day to day lives, that we don’t take the time to realize how something so small can mean so much to someone. We tend to look at things from our own individual perspectives, and value certain actions or objects based on what they mean to us. There’s the saying that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Not the perfect analogy here, but an action that’s no big deal to one person may be special to another.

I had one of those experiences the other day. I ran into a elderly gentleman who was in a motorized wheelchair. He didn’t look healthy, and seemed to have a sad face. He was asking people, while in a public walkway, if they could help him. Most kept walking by.

As I walked by him, slowing to get a better sense of what he was about, he looked at me and said, in a raspy voice, “excuse me, would you be willing to help me?”

Now, living in a large metropolitan area, I have seen all kinds of scams. Plus, you never know when a seemingly innocuous situation could be a setup.

That said, I still stopped and asked him, “What do you need?”

He looked at me, seemingly with relief and appreciation, and said - with difficulty - “Can you please pick up that book for me?”

Next to his motorized wheelchair was a book, almost like a diary of some kind. I looked around, making sure this was legit (you never know, I thought), and grabbed this book for him. Then I handed it to him. He took the book gently from me, hands shaking, and said “Thank You”.

He then proceeded to tell me it’s a book that’s important to him, and unfortunately he just couldn’t pick it up when it was on the ground. He had real trouble getting in and out of the motorized wheelchair. The part that hit me, though, is that he said “I really appreciate that you did this for me. Nobody else would stop and help me. They all walked by me without answering or just said no.”

It made my stomach turn when I heard that. 

Then, I asked him if he needed any other help. He said “No, thank you. I just really appreciate you doing that for me.  Thank you very much, it was really helpful to me.”

I followed by asking “Do you have anyone nearby to help you?”

He said “No, I live alone. It’s not easy but I have my phone with me if anything really bad happens to me. I had internal bleeding last year and a heart attack, but the ambulance got there just in time.”

I asked again if he was sure about not needing anything, and he said he was sure, and he thanked me again. Then he slowly motored onward, as I watched him move on. After a few seconds, I moved on too.

As I reflect on that situation, I think of that old man - so frail, with so little energy, and little mobility. And nobody living with him. He had a very tough existence. Yet he carried on, and showed me appreciation for helping him. I just did the right thing, nothing more.

The people that walked right by him missed out on a great opportunity for a chance encounter that could have enriched them immensely. How can we be so callous to let this be the exception, rather than the norm, when it comes to helping someone? I felt bad for being leery at first; I could have walked by him too.

I have to say, whatever small amount of help I gave him, he gave me much more back in terms of happiness for being able to truly help someone who needed it. More than that, he taught me how someone in a tough situation can still be nice to others and appreciate what they have. It was actually a moving experience.

What a great investment of my time. It paid off tremendously.

Wherever you are, sir, I hope you’re well. It was great to meet you. And by the way – thank you.