It was a dark and stormy night . . . Actually, I think it was warm and clear. But it was dark and stormy inside my head. I had finished a long day of work, in a series of many long days, and was en route back to my new condo. Which wasn't really my condo; I was house-sitting for a friend who was deployed. Before that I’d been in a short-term corporate apartment, before that I’d spent a few weeks in a friend’s spare bedroom, and before that I’d been in Afghanistan. All my belongings were still in storage.
I had recently started seeing a social worker at my Air Force base’s Behavioral Health Clinic for the depression and anxiety that had been nagging me since my deployment. At work, I was good at pretending I was okay (hence the long days, time is always a good substitute for motivation), but not far below the surface, I was stressed, tired, and unsettled, teetering on the verge of falling apart.
And, as I drove “home,” I was hungry.
I wasn't in the habit of stopping at restaurants in my uniform. I was always anxious to leave base and put on “normal” clothes (ie. pajamas), to de-militarize as quickly as possible. But that night, I needed some comfort food and couldn't fathom the energy to scrounge up dinner from the meager contents of my borrowed kitchen.
The green glow of the Olive Garden sign beckoned me from the side of Highway 98. I placed a To-Go order for something creamy and smothered in cheese and slumped onto a bench in the waiting area. All around me, people were laughing and chatting excitedly. Just listening to them made me tired.
When the hostess brought out my order, I had my credit card ready. She shook her head and smiled warmly. “It’s already been paid for. The gentlemen thanks you for your service.”
Shocked, I mumbled a “thank you,” took my food and returned to my car, where I immediately burst into tears—not because I was tired or stressed or frustrated or missing my cats that were still in Seattle with my parents, but because I was appreciated.
As we begin this new year, a lot of people seem to be looking for a fresh start. For many, the last few years have been soured by a tough economy, political bickering and countless other personal and financial problems. Whatever you’re dealing with in 2013, I wish you strength and perseverance.
And I issue you a challenge: Sometime this year, take a moment to step outside your own crazy, busy, frazzled life to make someone else’s day. Buy coffee for the customer behind you at the Starbucks drive through. Carry groceries for the older woman in your building. Thank those soldiers at the airport, the cops directing traffic at your 5K, the firemen on break outside their station.
The Olive Garden Good Samaritan didn't know I’d had a rough couple months. Maybe I wouldn't have been as touched by his gesture if I’d been in better spirits. If he’d gone on with his meal and not given me a second glance, he’d have an extra $15 in his pocket, and I’d probably be just fine.
I don’t know the story of the soldier sitting by himself at the Conn. Red Robin last month. I don’t know what his job is in the Army. I don’t know if he’s deployed once, multiple times, or not at all. I don’t know if he saw me slip the waitress my credit card to cover his check. I don’t know if it made him smile.
I just know, for me, it felt good on both sides.
**Photo from the Flickr Creative Commons: “Buying dinner with Change” by Flickr user “Juli Crockett” (Licensed by CC 3.0)