As the father of three young kids, vacations (and even weekends) are never “relaxing” any more. They can be invigorating, joyful, replenishing, exhausting – just not relaxing. There’s just too much going on.
Last Thursday our family was in Nashville, TN to visit my in-laws. We were having a typical family vacation day: getting up early with the kids, the grandparents took them to Cracker Barrel for breakfast (they were thrilled), then at 10am we bundled everyone up to head to the Science Museum – where I don’t think I was the only adult who found that the planetarium show made me queasy. After a bunch of climbing, of the kids bouncing in zero gravity and exploring giant-sized replicas of organs of the human body, we corralled our tired, hungry crew and drove off to Burger Up, an upscale burger place with locally sourced meats and a mean black bean and quinoa burger. My 8-year old son, once a picky eater, has recently discovered bacon cheeseburgers.
Burger Up was filled with a lunchtime crowd and we found ourselves waiting for a table. As a defensive move, I took our 19 month-old daughter away from the front entrance to entertain her, and she and I ended up standing next to a couple that was halfway through their meal, a guy with a long red beard and a black cap, and fair woman with jet-black hair eating a veggie burger. My daughter was smiling and giggling a lot, and I joked with her that if she smiled big enough they might even let her steal a French fry. They did offer a fry, which we declined, and we took a few steps towards the other end of the bar to let them eat in peace.
A few minutes later we found our way to a table, ordered six burgers (I got the veg one) and a starter of fried oysters; and, as we always do, we asked the waiter to bring everything all at once since the kids can only sit still for so long. The waiter got it – he’d seen crews like ours before. A few minutes later, he came back with our drinks and, after setting them down, he said with a smile, “I wanted to let you know that that gentleman over there (the guy with the beard who offered us a French fry) has picked up your tab for lunch. He said you are such a nice family and he wanted to wish you a happy new year.”
I’ve read a lot about people paying for random meals, at restaurants or at Starbucks or the drive-through line, or even at Karma Kitchen where the bill comes for $0 and you pay what you want to keep the chain forward and pay for the next person’s meal - but it’s never happened to me. It was really an incredible experience – something brand new that no one in our group really knew how to address. We all were a little giddy, feeling both shy and elated. And as the meal wore on we started saying things like, “C’mon, if we’re all such a nice family let’s sit still and wait for our food to come without shouting…!”
It was a joke at first but it did feel like the gift bestowed some sort of truth upon us, at least for a little while. Things that afternoon felt charmed, easier. By seeing ourselves through someone else’s eyes and by being exposed to a gesture that didn’t make “sense” in any traditional way – and because it didn’t make sense in any normal way it was uniquely pure and full of joy – our perspectives shifted, our reality shifted. We were living up to that gift.
As that gentleman stood up from his meal, I walked up to him, looked him in the eye, shook his hand and thanked him. I told him we would pay it forward, which we did, but mostly I just wanted to be grateful and gracious without putting him on the spot or making him at all uncomfortable. With the kids clamoring in the background and all the newness of that situation, I didn’t manage to have a proper conversation with him, I didn’t manage to ask too many questions or get to know him or do anything that would allow me to see him again. But maybe it’s better that way. He got to be an angel for a day, I got to have an angel in my life for a day. It didn’t change the course of my life or of his, but it touched me and it taught me – and that was all very real.
My and our forever struggle with generosity is: are we using our heads when we are being generous? I think the answer to that question is “sometimes,” and I think it depends on where you are in your practice of generosity. Some people have an advanced practice of generosity – it imbues who they are, and the spirit with which they walk through the world. I bet those peoples’ generosity muscles are so well-developed that they can flex in all sorts of situations. For me, well, I know that I’m still cultivating generosity, still working at not having analysis squash the heart-full practice of generosity. For me, a regular dose of pure, unadulterated, unanalyzed generosity every now and again is just what the doctor ordered, both in giving and in receiving.
Here’s wishing you a happy and generous 2013. And if you find yourself in Nashville this year, I’d recommend a stop at Burger Up. You’ll probably have to pay for your own meal, but it will be delicious.