The Kindness of Coffee

Paying it backward

Savala Nolan
Human Parts
Published in
4 min readOct 23, 2023

--

photograph by Nathan Dumlao

For years, whenever I’ve gone through a Starbucks drive-thru, I’ve picked up the tab of the car behind me. It’s a practice in random acts of kindness, a phrase I thought was cheesy until I started doing it.

My rules are simple:

One: I pay the check no matter the amount. This hasn’t gotten me into trouble so far — the biggest bill I’ve ever gotten was thirty bucks. Not nothing, but not something that’s going to put me in financial peril.

Two: Once I’m in line, I can’t change my mind based on who, exactly, turns out to be behind me. Admittedly, when I glance in the rearview mirror I sometimes get excited to see a sister (solidarity and mutual care-taking for the win), or an older couple (respect for elders never goes out of style), or what looks like a mom and a car full of kids (#momlife!). Those are my personal biases — but part of the point is to choose kindness regardless of who’s on the receiving end.

There’s a meditation in Buddhism called metta, where, at a certain point, you concentrate on wishing peace, contentment, safety, and joy (or similar states) to everyone in the world, including the people you don’t think particularly deserve it, the people you struggle with, the people who drive you up the wall. It is, at a minimum, an illuminating thought experiment — I have to chuckle at myself (compassionately, of course) when, in the meditation, I arrive at some person or group and find myself struggling to wish them well. Sometimes I grimace, roll my eyes, or grunt dismissively; sometimes I can wish them well anyway; sometimes I can’t. Either way, it’s good to see where the outer edges of my kindness thin and fray, to catch a glimpse of who or what appears beyond the limits of my good will and altruistic vibes. Like, God bless everyone — except for you! I may have decent or even highly compelling reasons for not wanting to wish Person A, B, or C contentment and peace. My anger, hurt, or resistance might be well-founded and righteous. But the metta practice requires me to check in on that anger, that hurt, those reasons. To evaluate them rather than take them for granted and let the tape of disgruntlement play on, mindlessly, ad infinitum.

And so does my Starbucks ritual, in its way. I once had a loud truck on massive, muddy…

--

--

Savala Nolan
Human Parts

uc berkeley law professor and essayist @ vogue, time, harper’s, NYT, NPR, and more | Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins | she/her | IG @notquitebeyonce