Accepting kindness with grace is not one of my superpowers. Accepting it with awkwardness, yes, but grace, no. Every time one of the girls at work asks if I’d like a cup of tea, I deliberate for a beat longer than I should. Usually, the answer is yes, but then I feel beholden to make everyone else in the office a cup of tea at some point in the future, and what if they don’t like the way I make it? But I can hardly say no every time, only to get up twenty minutes later to make my own cup. Then I think, pull yourself together woman, it’s only tea.
In the US, it was every woman for herself, with each coffee individually purchased and all restaurant bills meticulously divided right down to the extra side of guacamole. If I borrowed a dollar from somebody, you better believe I paid it back. In Australia, it’s a swings-and-roundabouts mentality: I’ll get this round if you get the next one. Don’t worry about splitting up the check, it’ll come out in the wash. And you know what? It usually does. Karma isn’t just something that strikes down the bad guys; it’s something that helps us to live in harmony.
Of course, it’s not just my cultural background that makes me anxious about returning a favor; it’s also personal. During my twenties, I was the borrower, the one whose bank account seemed to be set on a slight delay behind real time. Whether it was my roommate spotting me for the rent or my travel buddy shouting me an extra round of beers, I maintained a running tally of what I owed people and made sure that I paid them back in kind. By the time I hit thirty, I’d resolved that weakness, the one that rejected budgeting in favor of instant gratification. It was a hard lesson to learn, and it’s not without a few lingering side effects.
It’s been years since I’ve had to pay a friend back, but when someone is kind to me I still can’t shake the feeling that I owe them something in return. At the very least, I owe them an appropriate level of appreciation for what they’ve done, but I don’t always know what that is. Thank you feels hollow, not enough. Returning the gesture at some point is probably a good option, but adding “Reciprocate act of kindness” to my mental to-do list seems to make it less genuine and therefore inadequate. Every Christmas, I throw gifts at Jared, hoping that sheer quantity will overcome the fact that I can never manage to come up with the one perfect present. (Which, by the way, is one of Jared’s many superpowers. He always finds the present that strikes the ideal balance between simple and meaningful.)
Giving, in any capacity, can be fraught with emotional baggage, which is why Christmas, birthdays, and other annual events tend to be twinned with unwanted stress. A wedding, then, is the pinnacle of giving and receiving, because it’s only supposed to happen once. Everyone has to cram all of that gifting into one single event, and trying to keep score is a recipe for burnout. That’s why I found the business aspect of a wedding oddly calming, minus the whole give-me-all-your-money thing. Here’s your invoice, there’s the payment, deal done. No fretting over exactly how to express my thanks because it’s right there in a predetermined dollar amount.
Then I entered an online competition for free day-of-coordination services. For an entire month, I was the only entrant. “If no one else enters, then you win by default,” the coordinator wrote. “Ha ha!” I didn’t laugh. Two days before the contest closed, a local Hawaiian couple entered, racked up hundreds of “likes,” and swanned off with the win. That afternoon I received an email offering us a runner-up prize of partial-day coordination. As soon as my initial excitement wore off, I was stricken. How could I express my appreciation without going overboard or, worse, undervaluing her services? Should I give her a tip? How much, in dollars, was my gratitude worth?
I sent a gushing thank you email and signed off with a promise to add good reviews to Wedding Wire and Yelp. Working out tips could come later; at least for now I wanted to offer her some sort of pledge that I’d do something tangible to repay her favor. As soon as I hit send, I felt like an idiot. She wasn’t doing this because she wanted something. She did it to be kind. She offered me a wedding day cup of tea and I splashed it on her shoes in my haste to make one in return.
I’m stuck in the mindset that kindness is an obligation, but it’s not. Showing kindness comes naturally, even if receiving it doesn’t. It feels good to be nice to people. There’s a reason Ellen DeGeneres signs off her show by saying, “Be kind to one another.” Any time I catch her show, there’s Ellen, practicing what she preaches. The people cry, and they say thank you, and that is always enough. No one tries to give Ellen a tip or promises to like her Facebook page. Ellen never says, “Your response was unsatisfying, give me back that $10,000 check.” Kindness does not—or should not—come with self-serving conditions, and running away from it never made the world a better place.
I am trying to remember that kindness is inherently a swings-and-roundabouts system, not a way of keeping score. This morning, I made a cup of coffee for one of my co-workers while we were both in the kitchen. When she found that it wasn’t quite strong enough, she added a teaspoon of instant coffee to her mug and thanked me. I didn’t feel bad; she didn’t either. There was no guilt, only gratitude, because lending and giving are not the same thing. It wasn’t the way I made the coffee that mattered; it was the fact that I’d made it at all.