How to Kill a Moment of Grace with Two Quarters and a Pack of Gum.

I am almost never disappointed by a ride on the bus in Austin.   To try to explain why is as hard as to try  to explain what is amazing at Burning Man or Burning Flipside. There are too many un-photographable moments and too many unrealistic stories you have to experience  to make you a believer.   But this particular story has bugged me for days, and keeps changing the way I see relationships.  Now to be fair, I was already cranky.  I spent one and a half hours each way on the bus for an errand that should have taken a half hour and took three.  Even so, this seemingly insignificant moment was heartbreaking.  It was kindness turned against itself.  It was a moment turned against grace.   And it was executed with two quarters and a pack of Big Red gum.

The moment was both obvious and simple.  Everything about this woman told me she was not used to riding the bus and was grossly unprepared for how it worked.  “All I want to do,” she said exasperated, “is to get back downtown, its just a few blocks.”  She was utterly exasperated that the driver did not have change for her five dollar bill.   Admittedly her large sunglasses, chemically tortured hair and gaudy gold metallic purse gave the moment an unmistakable comedic set-up that made me want to just sit and watch it play out.   But I honestly felt sorry for her and because I had a pocket of singles I figured I would just hand her one and call it a day.   She was grateful at first and  the bus kept moving.   My thoughts moved on.

A few stops later she was getting ready to make her exit by ambushing me with two quarters and a pack of Big Red gum.  She was shoving them, a little too intimiately into my lap.   Totally caught off guard,  I found myself shewing her objects off me like they were flies or termites.  Two quarters and a pack of Big Red gum?    All I could say in a very Hollywood-ish vocabulary was, “Pay it forward! Pay it forward!”  I felt stupid. I hate cliches, but this was all I could think to say.

If she had simply said thanks, and really felt a moment of kindness the day probably would have been a wee bit richer.  Instead she tried to repay me with something I did not need.  I felt like I had just been forced to walk into a Walgreens and buy a pack of gum I did not want.  The debt was exaggerated.   The books were left in the red.

She clearly didn’t understand what I was saying.  All those chemicals may have soaked through her scalp.   Actually, no.  Not at all.   This wasn’t all a matter of intelligence.  She did nothing wrong.  She was simply living in a world of black and red ink that we have all come to live by in some ways.  She tried to pay a debt that wasn’t there and we all ended up with what was less than the sum of its parts.

This is a kind of math, apparently, she had not yet studied in life.  How would she have known I really intended there to be no obligation.  Her imagination is loaded with obligations and economics.  In her world she would only be well if she paid back what had been given her. It broke my heart, not because of her personal failure, but ours.  She told a story we all know and by which we are all surrounded.

Giving, as it happens,can leave us enlivened and willing to give.  Obligations, on the other hand,  lose their value almost immediately.  Who knew that, “thank you, ” would be so hard to say.   But it is.   It is hard to say to each other and it is hard to say to God.    Gratitude takes practice.  There are no tip jars in a gift economy.

Nevertheless, when we die, it will be the only right thing we ever say.


**some people have rightly observed that the emphasis is off in this piece.  The woman was kind and did no wrong.   She had no obligation to not have an obligation to me.   I hope the emphasis here can be on the opportunity that gratitude affords us, on our own lack of imagination where it applies and not the failures of a kind woman. 


Also on the gift economy:


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5 responses to “How to Kill a Moment of Grace with Two Quarters and a Pack of Gum.

  1. Dianne Muchow

    I am very bad at this (the receiving part). I can “give” all day long BUT “receiving” is VERY hard for me. I’m learning, albeit ever so slowly, to simply accept the gift and say “thank you”. It is such a deeply emotional experience for me though that I often get choked up as I try to force THOSE WORDS out instead of the millions that are running through my mind… Words like “I don’t deserve this.” or “What do you want from me?” or “Where’s the catch?” or “I don’t understand why you would just GIVE something to me…”. Grace is probably THE most important relational skill that we can learn (and it IS learned and it IS a skill for it is neither natural nor easy) and yet it is one of the least applied in our culture. I think that some people are great givers and some are great receivers and few are great at both. As I read through this story, I felt bad for both of you. I’ve been in each position enough times to know that neither of you walked away pain free. I’m sorry that it happened for the sake of the painful moments but glad that you shared it so that we can think about it. Thank you for sharing. This too is a sort of “gift”, this sharing of experiences and stories.

  2. Doug Harrison, I think you were being a ****. First of all, your high and mighty Burning Man ‘gift economy’ is not the be all end all savior of the world. And not everyone in the default world knows or understands it. Who are you to deny the woman the chance to feel a little better by repaying you something? And oh so sorry her quarters and big red weren’t up to your liking. Toss them aside, embarrass her, make fun of her on your blog and call her a failure. You, sir, are the failure.

    • Doug Harrison

      You actually make a very good point and I need to make some adjustments here. The lady did nothing wrong and in fact was being quite thoughtful and kind. What I hope to be saying here is that I hope we can also learn to receive. I hope we can learn to live more freely with our gratitude and paying things forward is a great opportunity, not some kind of moral law. A gift economy is no savior of the world by any means. I do not mean to make that claim at all. I will try to make some edits to reflect this better.

      But the lesson I will let stand on it’s own merit.

      • Doug, thank you for your reply. I’m very much in agreement with what you said. I can’t fault someone for being thoughtful and kind, if it’s coming truly from their heart (and not merely worrying about social conventions or ‘what will they think’).

        In many of my social circles it is very difficult to just receive. Receive without strings attached. Receive without a mental balance sheet being tallied. I don’t know why it’s hard, but i think we’re better people when we learn that a gift can really be just a gift.

  3. Doug,
    You committed a sin. You gave an unconditional gift, and in our culture, it is something of a crime. Many people have no emotional concept of unconditional gifts. When confronted with exactly the kind of relationship they long for, “the perfect unconditional loving person, who accepts me for who I am”, they reject it. They run from it. It is too good to be true. The only way this woman could emotionally accept your gift is by giving something in return, so you got some gum. The sad truth is that there are people who struggle between the gift, and their own concept of worthiness, that they will turn away the gift even it might risk their lives. I have seen this happen. The greatest gift of life is the “I love you,” from another person. It is far more than two bits for a bus, and they can not accept this gift. They have no idea, how or what they can do to earn it. They doubt it. They question if they are worthy. And, most of the time they do not accept the gift. But that is not because there is something wrong with the giver, or the gift. The person simply will not allow themselves to accept it. My next book will be about this very topic.