Being new in town, I am still discovering the good coffee shops.
I have learned over the years that not everyone values the same things I do in a coffee shop, and so you can’t just take anyone’s word for it – you have to investigate for yourself.
So when I walked into the shop, I was wary, on alert – like a gazelle on the African savannah.
There were signs this was going to be good right away.
Lots of natural light, but no direct sunlight to blare in your eyes. A traffic flow pattern that made intuitive sense. Instead of one huge room, a series of nooks and crannies where you could have a private conversation, or sit quietly with a book. More than one type of coffee being offered, but only two, so you could break it down pretty simply into dark or lighter roast.
But it wasn’t until I asked for a mug of coffee that I knew this was going to be good. Because the barista took the mug, which had been placed upside down on the shelf so no random dust could fly into it, and then she ran it under the steam wand on the espresso machine to heat it up.
Two simple things – the upside-down mug, the pre-heated mug – told me everything I needed to know. This was a place where the people who work there had empathy for the people who would drink coffee there.
I think empathy is perhaps the most import thing needed to live in society and the thing I see most missing in today’s interpersonal interactions.
The ability to place yourself in the shoes of another – to ask yourself what their life must be like, to seek to understand their point of view, to do what Atticus Finch was recommending in the third chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird:
“…if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” – Atticus Finch
All of that seems not only lost but no longer even aspired to. Instead, our own desires, feelings, and goals assume primacy. They are the most important thing, we tell ourselves. Our convenience, our desires, our point of view.
I tremble for our world, where, in the smallest ways, we find it impossible, as Marshall Hodgson enjoined, to find room for the other in our minds. If we cannot accommodate a viewpoint in a friend without resorting to unkindness, how can we hope to heal the terrible problems of our planet? I no longer think that any principle or opinion is worth anything if it makes you unkind or intolerant. – Karin Armstrong
Maybe that is a lot to put on a barista in a coffee shop, but the person who asks herself what people want in their experience of drinking a mug of coffee (a clean mug, a warm mug, so the coffee doesn’t get cold before you have a chance to drink it all) is on the path to making the world better, even though both acts were minor inconveniences to her. Maybe because both acts were minor inconveniences to her.
I think, more than anything else, the reason I am captivated with the Jesus Movement was its focus on the Other. It wasn’t about how to achieve enlightenment for oneself, but rather about how to save the world, how to bring about Liberation for all people. At it’s best, it is a training school for compassion, for empathy.
I don’t think empathy, if we are to survive as a species, is going to be optional. Instead, I think it is what will save us.