What To Do When Your Barista's An Asshole
The other day I was in line for coffee. The man behind the counter glanced at me swiftly then said he’d be right with me. He stood in front of me for a minute or so fiddling with something. So, I asked him my simple question, whether or not they had decaf coffee, and he responded with a pretty large attitude. He was dismissive and a little rude, and the encounter lasted no more than ten seconds.
I lived in Philadelphia for eight years, a place I expected rudeness in daily encounters. So I’ve been spoiled living here in sunnyville, Los Angeles, where everyone I seem to encounter is cheery and well-mannered. Yes, my skin may have softened out here in La-La Land, but I don’t think I’m alone in experiencing the lingering negative sensations of being treated unkindly.
As I walked away from the man at the coffee counter I felt kind of icky. My mind began to do its usual analytical processing: what did I do wrong, what could I have done differently, what the hell just happened? I’m pretty skilled at not putting much stake into my mind’s negative chatter, and at four or five steps into my walk I’d shaken off the negativity and was sending the guy good vibes.
The experience reminded me of a conversation I had with my mom in 1996. Her sister was dying of a rare cancer of the Uterus. My aunt couldn’t bear going to the market to face the consequences of the cashier asking her how she was doing. She knew she couldn’t burden the clerk with the heavy truth, but I don’t think she could bear lying about it either.
The lyrics by Oren Lavie in “Morning Elegance” reminds me of this circumstance. They go:
And she fights for her life
As she puts on her coat
And she fights for her life on the train
She looks at the rain as it pours
And she fights for her life as she goes in a store
With a thought she has caught by a thread
She pays for the bread and she goes
Sometimes we just don't know the depth of someone's suffering.
Sometimes we don't have a clue they're suffering. And sometimes it's not our right to know. Sometimes we need to just let people be where they're at. Sometimes the best thing we can do is make some space for their pain. We don't need to take on their pain as our own. We don't need to make it about ourselves. It's ok to let someone carry their own weight, walk through their own fire, and bare the burden of their own path. And we can be there, ready to embrace them when they need us. Ready to let go of the snarky response, the cold tone, or the lack of friendliness.
I think we need to make more room for the suffering in the world to take space in our every day encounters. We need to make space for the grieving, for the dying, for the depressed. They live among us. They are us at times. And the grieving and the dying and the anxiousness, it doesn’t live behind closed walls. It lives within us. It moves with us. It’s among us all the time. But we walk big circles around it as if we’re afraid to be touched.
I know this started out with a story of a barista who was attitude-y, and now it’s about death and dying. But it’s all of it. It’s the dude who’s having a hella bad day to the lady whose bowels are swelling with tumors. It’s the chick who gave everything to get out of bed to practice yoga and is moving into child's pose with tears streaming down her face. It’s the very old man who swaddles himself in cloth and walks slow laps around my neighborhood each morning until one day he no longer did. It’s seeing his house on the market. It’s someone else moving in who might be the lady crying in yoga or the cashier or the barista.
These are the shades of life. When someone is expressing pain, whether it shows up in frustration, anger, or sadness, allow it to be theirs.
We don’t need to analyze ourselves because an experience we had with someone didn’t feel good. We don’t need to hold on to someone else’s pain and carry it with us. And we also don’t have to mark them with permanent, derogatory labels. I get that it’s hard. When we feel slighted our ego wants to create a big story around it. But it can be simpler than that. We can shake it off. We can have compassion for the pained.
And guess what? The next day the very same man behind the counter and I had a pleasant exchange. Maybe he had been having a bad day. Maybe he got into a fight with his partner. Maybe his mom has cancer. Maybe I was being annoying. Who knows? Behind his eyes is a whole world that evades me.
I’m not saying it’s ok for people to walk around being jackasses. But even if they are, it’s not serving ourselves to take on their shit. One of the best things we can learn to do to live healthy lives in relationship to others is to learn what’s ours and what’s theirs. And when we recognize that it’s not all about us, it becomes much easier to see when people are in pain. And then maybe we can make a little room for their pain. Maybe we can make it ok that they had a moment where they couldn’t hold it all together. Maybe in that we’d see a more compassionate culture, a more authentic world, and an opening for healing.