Buckets, Strangers, and Coffee

As I sat in the parking lot listening to the end of a book, I had no idea the encounter that was about to happen. I’m always fascinated when events align in a way I could not have orchestrated or imagined. This day turned out to be one of those days. Though I did not realize it as I finished the book and exited the car, I was about to intersect with four strangers in a very profound way.The book I was finishing is called How Full Is Your Bucket. It is a short but substantial book, written by Donald Clifton, the man behind the popular assessment tool called Strengths Finder. In it, Clifton uses the metaphor of a bucket to describe how important positive emotions are in our lives. Those who experience affirmation, encouragement, acceptance, and love in abundance have full buckets. Those who do not have emotional buckets that are empty. 

As you might guess, those with full buckets live and work in a much stronger and healthier way. Once he established this fact, Clifton used the remainder of the book to challenge the reader to be a bucket filler for others. These thoughts were bouncing around in my mind as I entered the Panera for my next appointment.

The Encounter

Scanning the guests for the person I was to meet, I got in line to order the usual, a small coffee. Lee Ann was actually in line ahead of me and so as she finished we greeted each other for the first time and she proceeded to find us a table. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. I’ve done this a hundred times and it’s always the same. Not today.

While next in line waiting my turn, a lady slid in front of me to place her order. She had been talking to one of the employees next to the counter and though I was a bit confused I assumed she had simply been invited to jump the line and go next. Maybe a little inconvenience for me, but no big deal. Or so I thought.

The man behind me felt differently. Stepping around and in front of me, with pointer finger extended, he announced for everyone around to hear, “Excuse me young lady, the line is back there!” It was so odd I was sure they knew each other and she would turn around with a big smile, recognizing the practical joke. I could not have been more wrong. He could not have been more serious.

As she turned to face the voice, she looked like a child being berated by an angry father. Her name, I learned later, is Terry. She’s middle aged. She’s black. He was 70ish, white, and did not offer his name. I’m in between them trying to make sense of what was happening. It was so bizarre that I turned to face the angry man just to confirm with my eyes what my ears were telling me. As I did, he bellowed again, “I don’t tolerate that kind of bullshit!”

He was indignant. She was devastated. After the incident was over, I was able to understand how both of their emotional buckets were empty. But in the moment, my thoughts were racing for what if anything I should do. What came next was more or less a reaction of my disbelief and a strong sense of justice. I looked the man in the eye and said, “I can’t believe how wildly inappropriate that was,” or something close to that. Exactly what he said next is lost to the adrenaline coursing through my brain, but it was certainly not an apology. Far from it. 

What's The Next Choice?

Life is a series of choices. In that moment I had another one to make — continue the confrontation or do something else, something completely unexpected. I chose the latter. Though I was not feeling particularly loving toward this man, I did the most “love-your-enemy” thing I could think of and stepped out of the way and offered him the chance to go next. His entire body spoke his response. Legs stiff, arms crossed, he didn’t even need to say, “NOPE. I am NOT, doing that.” I wonder if he even remembers what a full bucket feels like.

And so, I ordered my coffee while exchanging reactions to what had happened with the cashier, Deborah. She was shocked at how sexist the man had been. After filling my cup, I found my way to Terry and apologized to her for the whole scene. She was in tears and still reeling from being told to go to the “back of the bus.” For her, the man was clearly a racist. What’s more, none of us could have known she had just been to the doctor and learned things were not good. Her bucket was low before she even arrived.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, I made my way to where Lee Ann was seated and proceeded to share with her what had just happened. Talk about a first impression. I was not as present in our conversation as I usually am. I was still processing what had just happened. Furthermore, we were interrupted multiple times by Terry, Deborah, and a manager still processing the scene themselves. This happened a week ago now, and I still get amped up thinking about it. 

Leverage the Learning

There is certainly more to glean from this encounter with these strangers, but I have come to a few conclusions:

  • People see and hear through their own lenses — sexist, racist, angry, simply an insensitive jerk. All of these could be true, but we hear and interpret through our own experiences. Awareness is key to understanding.
  • People respond and react from the contents of their emotional buckets. There is no justifying the actions of this man, even if he was just trying to prevent line breakers. But, there’s always more to the story. Somewhere along the way his bucket became empty. It’s probably been empty for a long time.
  • We can be bucket fillers or bucket drainers — both are a choice. It seems obvious that bucket filling would be better. Yet many live in the opposite way. Parents draining their kid’s buckets. Companies draining buckets through bad culture. Spouse, bosses, neighbors, all draining buckets. Need I go on?
  • Do the right thing, even if it’s difficult.

Though this is an extreme example, it is a reminder of the power of moments. All it takes is just a moment to make an impact on someone’s life, regardless of whether they are close to us or complete strangers. The question is what impact do you want to make. Said differently, are you a bucket filler or a bucket drainer? The choice is always and only yours.


Categories: General, Relationships, AttitudeNumber of views: 746


6 comments on article "Buckets, Strangers, and Coffee"

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Bev Myers

4/15/2019 10:24 AM

Mark, how I wish I had read this 24 hours ago. I just did a devotional on “Encouragement” at Community Bible Study this morning. Your story is a great example of what a difference encouragement could have made in this situation. You were probably the only encouragement the woman had today, and hopefully, it did comfort her to have you speak up to the other person and defend her. We are all called to be encouragers, just as Christ is the Great Encourager. If we are Christ-followers, how can we be anything less? Great read.

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Mark Stanifer

4/15/2019 11:22 AM

Thanks Bev. Feel free to use it next time :)

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Lee Ann

4/15/2019 4:45 PM

Wow. What a gifted writer you are. Even though I was actually there, you told the story so masterfully that I was transported right back into that scene. What a beautiful way to button it all up and make the positive out of a negative. Very glad our paths have crossed.

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Mark Stanifer

4/15/2019 5:23 PM

Thanks Lee Ann. Glad you were there to help me process all that happened. Here's hoping next time will just be a normal conversation.

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4/15/2019 6:40 PM

That was quite some encounter you had last week, Mark. During this Lenten season I have been focusing on Grace, gratitude and compassion and seeing the Christ in everyone and everything. It was easy to show compassion towards Terry but not so much towards the elderly man. Yet, you recognized that their buckets were empty and you showed compassion towards both. Easy to love the one and not the other. Anyway, I am proud of the way you handled this very uncomfortable situation.

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Mark Stanifer

4/16/2019 5:03 AM

The right thing is seldom the easy thing. Thank you for the encouragement and affirmation.

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