Pay It Forward.

I generally don’t really care about money, which is probably due to the fact that I actually have some now and don’t need to worry about every single cent anymore. But there were times when my finances were very, very tight, so when friends are getting upset about amounts they need to pay because they just don’t have the money at the moment, I can certainly relate. I know where they are coming from, so I appreciate the fact that nowadays, there is enough money in my savings account that unforeseen expenditures do not throw me off track that easily.

Having some money has given me the freedom to obtain things I wanted to have; at the same time (and this sounds very cliché), the more money I have earned, the more I have come to the realisation that there actually aren’t that many things I need or even want. For example, I don’t really see the point in spending money on a huge TV, as I don’t watch that much television anyway and the current one works just fine; my dad keeps on nagging me about getting a new car, but the car I have is just 7 years old, runs smoothly, and is rarely used, so why should I get a new one?

The things I am interested in are, among others, travels, learning new things, or going out with friends. These are experiences that cannot be “bought” but have to be made, and I think these experiences are more important than buying a new flat-screen TV or the 16th pair of shoes. What I do like to spend money on, however, are things that make other people happy. Even at times when I was basically broke, I have always been quite generous with my friends, family, even people I hardly know: Sending flowers to a friend who is going through a rough time, giving small presents because I saw things in a shop and knew the other person would like them, inviting others for dinner, planning little surprise trips. It is a corny thing to say, but: I do like to see other people smile and being happy, and I like being the person who makes them happy.

So what I have been trying to do for the last couple of months (now that I have the financial means) is to make more people happy: Every month, I aim to spend money on somebody else – not only on people I actually know, but also on strangers. The easiest way would be to donate to charity organisations (which I also do), but I believe that every day, you meet people who could need a bit of cheering up. This does not only include people who live on the streets, etc., but also people who just go about their day and are not expecting anything “nice” to happen to them.

To be able to see if somebody needs some happiness, you need to walk through life with open eyes; these days, I am always on the lookout for people that could do with a smile. Back in May, Susanne and I were having dinner at a restaurant where we shared a table with a young couple in their late teens; as we were sitting so close, I started chatting to them (much to Susanne’s amusement/embarrassment; I still don’t understand why Germans are so aghast when somebody is trying to do small talk), and it turned out that they were celebrating their first anniversary. Susanne and I left a bit earlier than them and went to the counter to pay; while we were standing there, waiting for the bill, I thought back at how going to a restaurant with my boyfriend at that age was such a special occasion, as it usually meant spending a month worth of pocket money on a single meal.

So I turned to the waitress and told her I would like to pay their bill as well; the waitress as well as Susanne looked at me like I had lost my mind. The waitress confirmed about three times whether I was really sure about this, while Susanne asked me why I wanted to do it. I told her that it would make them happy, and that’s all the reason I need. The waitress then made an attempt to go over to tell the couple I had paid their meal, so I stopped her and told her that she was only allowed to say something once we had left and they were asking for the bill. That confused Susanne and the waitress even more: “But why do you not want them to know?” – “Because that’s not what this is about.” I had no interest in becoming all stalker-ish and hide somewhere in the corner to watch their reaction; I know that this was coming as a pleasant surprise for them, which is all I wanted. So much to Susanne’s chagrin, we left the restaurant while the couple was still blissfully unaware that they had just eaten for free.

A couple of weeks later, I was walking down the hallway at uni when a young lady suddenly stopped me; it took me a couple of seconds to identify her as the waitress from the restaurant. She handed me a note that the couple had given to her, in the hope I would one day come back to the restaurant; unbeknownst to them (and me), the waitress is a student at our university and managed to track me down. In the note, the couple profoundly thanked me, saying that it was the best thing that had happened to them in quite some time, ending with “… and the next time, we will pay for your meal!”. The thing is: I don’t want them to pay for my dinner; I would rather have them pay it forward and make somebody else happy, in whatever way they deem suitable.

When I give to other people, I am not interested in getting something back in return. I am as happy as any other person about presents or being attended to, but for me, the idea of giving is just a way to spread the love. I know this sounds really “leftie” (I can almost see Robert rolling his eyes reading this …), but I truly believe that this is a small, easy way of making the world a better place.

Three weeks ago, I watched a busker in Birmingham, playing her heart out on the guitar while standing at a draughty, cold corner of the city centre; I went to Starbucks and bought a hot chocolate for her. When she did a short break, I gave her the hot beverage; she was really surprised and asked me, “Why are you doing this?”, and all I could say was, “Why not?”. I am trying to put myself in the shoes of people I see and reflect on what would make me happy if I was in their position. In her case, I could not offer her a record deal, but at least something to warm up while she was trying to earn some money.

Most of the things I do are tiny and nothing worth mentioning, but maybe a bit uplifting for the people I encounter. I think it is important to give people a feeling of “Actually, life is not too bad, and there are some good people out there”, because I do believe that. The concept of paying it forward does not mean that I expect great things to happen to me in return just because I am nice to others. To me, it means making people aware that there are others out there who do care and who do watch out for them and try to be nice to them, regardless whether they know them or not. There are a lot of things going on in world politics at the moment which are utterly depressing; so why not make people believe in the good in man again?

So I spent the last weeks organising and creating Advent calendars for the people I love. On Monday, I sent off several parcels to my cousins as well as my friends abroad; …

Postal happiness.

… I bought many little surprises for my parents, who will get their first ever Advent calendar this year, …

Thinking of you.

… and I also made sure that my favourite colleagues will have something to celebrate in the days leading to Christmas.

Charlotte, Bert, et al.

I am too realistic to truly believe I can change the world; while one person can make a difference, it takes a whole society to keep the momentum going. But as one of my favourite German bands once sang, “It is not your fault that the world is like it is; it would be your fault if it stayed that way”.

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