On a recent morning I stopped at a local coffee shop before getting on the highway to spend a few hours with my two grandchildren.
Only one barista was on duty and he was busy making a fancy beverage for the only customer ahead of me. I stood behind the customer, a man in a baseball cap, resigned to waiting a few minutes. I wasn’t in a hurry, so it was not an inconvenience — just a much-needed exercise in patience. And then …
Almost immediately, my thoughts lurched to negativity: Why can’t people just order real coffee instead of foofoo drinks with ice, flavored syrup and whipped cream? That’s not coffee. It’s dessert.
And why am I the only person in this place wearing a mask? A day earlier, the CDC had released information on a rash of breakthrough COVID cases on Cape Cod among the vaccinated. News already had been trickling out about virus hotspots, sparking angry refusals to wear masks or get vaccinated, this is tyranny, how dare you infringe on my liberty, etc.
(I am fully vaccinated and — liberty intact — I have resumed wearing a mask indoors in public places, even though as of this writing it’s only a recommendation in my county.)
In no time at all, I had gone from zen-like patience to irritated and then disgusted by the state of our country and many of the people in it.
Finally — finally! — the man’s shiny drink arrived and as he went to put his credit card into the reader, he gestured toward me and told the barista something to the effect of, “And I’ll pay for whatever he’s getting.”
Maybe “gobsmacked” is too strong a word, but I certainly snapped out of my cynical reverie. I asked the man to clarify that he was indeed treating me, and he confirmed it. “It’s the decent thing to do,” he said. “I made you wait.”
Of course, I thanked him profusely and at some point said something about random acts of kindness. I ordered my small coffee (hot, no ice, no sugar, no syrup, no whipped cream) and a day-old muffin and told the barista, “You don’t see that every day.”
But other than tossing a $1 bill into the tip basket that morning, I have yet to pay it forward.
Maybe telling this story takes care of that.
Or encouraging you to watch “This is Water,” a video based on excerpts of a brilliant 2005 commencement speech by David Foster Wallace, who implores graduates to resist their self-centered “natural default setting” and to be aware “of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us.”
But let’s take it one step further. Send us your personal stories of “random acts of decency” and we’ll consider it for a future post in Sense of Decency.
Check out the guidelines on our “How to Submit” page and send us your anecdote at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pass it on. It could be contagious.
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. Full disclosure: After decades of drinking coffee with skim or low-fat milk, he now prefers coffee with oat milk.