Non-monetary Value of a Cup of Coffee

It was 6:45 in the morning, and I was standing in line to pay for my cup of coffee in Duke’s cafeteria. The Weekly vascular conference was just about to begin. In front of me there was a young man, may be 30 years old. He was dressed in a pair of jeans and a plaid shirt. Average looking. I was absent-minded, thinking of my daughter coming to see us tonight and how are we going to pick her up from the airport. He said something to a lady at the cash register and I heard him talking to me, “I just paid for your coffee. Have a good day”. And he walked away.

Nothing like that ever happened to me before. I didn’t dare to refuse the gift, and he wasn’t waiting for my reaction.  I smiled and said thank you, but he didn’t hear it. There was nobody behind in line for me to reciprocate, but it would make no sense anyway.  The gesture was for me to enjoy, and not to mirror it and immediately do the same for somebody else.  He charged my emotional bank with much more than the monetary value of a cup of coffee.

Why do some people behave this way?

I was more than twice his age, dressed up well above an average person in a hospital cafeteria.  It didn’t look like I couldn’t afford a cup of coffee. He could be a maintenance worker, although I didn’t see a badge. Or he could have been a family member of a person being treated at Duke.

Then I realized that he didn’t do it just for me.  He did it also, and may be even more, for himself.  He didn’t wait for my reaction and didn’t expect my “thank you”.  This was not a practical joke – he wasn’t watching me.  The reward was just in the act of giving.

If you are the luckiest one percent of humanity, you owe it to the rest of the people to think of the other 99 percent.

Warren Buffett

But he wasn’t a one-percenter at all.  He just behaved as one.  And to be honest, I was much closer to that status.  It was his state of mind which put him in this bracket.  Again, I realized that my mother was right – you don’t judge a book by its cover. Then I started to think. Was he a deeply religious person?  Maybe his family member was just being put on the operating table?  Or last Sunday, the church sermon was about loving your neighbor and about being a cheerful giver.

Or perhaps he just received a big inheritance and was suddenly generous.  Then I realized that all the reasons I was thinking of were as a quid pro quo, something for something, having an ulterior motive behind his act. And I didn’t like these thoughts. To me, it was a pure act of giving without the expectations other than feeling good about himself. I wasn’t in need of  “make me feel good” moment, but how would I feel, if my family member was being treated in OR right now?

How do you reciprocate a person for that? He doesn’t need your prize.  He is already rewarded.  You may feel in need to do something instantly.  But wait.  It’s not that simple.

In the end, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives.  Finally, it may be it is wiser to surrender to the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love.

It was the way I felt at that moment.

The same pertains to our children as well. The only hope I have is that they treat their children the way we treat them.

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