I have worked at a coffee shop and I have worked at a tea shop. By now I can tell whether a customer will order coffee or tea as soon as they enter the door. The coffee drinker throws open the door, strides toward the counter and says: two coffees.
They don’t say please. They don’t say Hello. They don’t say “I would like”.
As you start to fill up their cups you ask questions like “cream or sugar? for here or to-go? how’s your day going? that’ll be five dollars, please”. During this time the coffee drinker will glare at you, perturbed by what appears to be you dawdling. But they don’t dare interrupt you because you stand in between them and their fix. That’s what it is, ultimately. A fix.
The tea drinker, on the other hand, nudges the door open and closes it gracefully behind them. They absorb the room’s ambiance, meandering up to the counter. Before talking about what they want they ask you how you’re doing. In fact, they don’t know what they want. You must guide them through all the different kinds of tea: green, oolong, pu-erh. The list is literally endless, all the varieties. What do you want today? Oh, I don’t know. What am I in the mood for? Would you like something grassy and sweet, or how about something citrusy? Ooh, I know. Have this white peony. It tastes like straw with a hint of chocolate spice.
After they select their tea it still takes you another three minutes to make it. After that they will probably linger, staying for one or two more infusions. In all that time you could have served over 30 coffee drinkers.
Our country is decidedly a coffee-drinking culture. Coffee is the emblem of capitalism: powerful, efficient, cheap. It gets you moving to where you need to go fast so that you can do what you need to do soon. If coffee and tea were running for president no way would tea be elected. Coffee is decisive, tea is introspective. Coffee is confident, tea is curious. Coffee is ready to go to war, tea thinks it wants to study art.
Tea and coffee stand for a symbol older and more fundamental than either: yin and yang. Yang is the active force of the universe, the sun that starts seeds to grow. Yin is the necessary rest after a long day, the shade beneath the tree. The ancient Chinese devised this symbol with the understanding that wherever there is yin there’s yang, and wherever there is yang there’s yin. They’re inseparable. Our part is to keep them in balance within ourselves. Harmonize the active with the passive, temper the blinding light with darkness.
My hunch is we are a ‘yang’ culture. Growing up, I satisfied people by always having an answer ready. Even if I didn’t know the answer I had an answer ready. In short, I bullshitted. These days, when somebody asks me a question to which I don’t know the answer- and if I’m keeping good watch on myself- I say, “I don’t know”. And you know what? Some people don’t like it. But it’s a helluva lot easier. And more honest.
I met a guy once form Quebec who said that his people work to live, while most Americans live to work. It’s true. Who the fuck has time? I don’t. Time is like the Giant Beaver that once populated North America, thousands of years ago. We know it used to be here, but it’s not anymore. All we have now are these tiny, pathetic beavers. “I can squeeze you in Tuesday from 2-3”.
But the tide is turning. I think a lot of us see that it’s more important to live a fulfilling life than a successful one. And in some cases that means coming up with our own definitions of success. In order to live the Good Life we’re gonna need a certain portion of loafing, wandering and tea.
I’ll close with a concrete example (just because one of my readers has told me that I’m supposed to start with a concrete example and extrapolate from there). Give a coffee drinker a to-do list and they’ll kick the shit out of that list. But they’ll be worn out by 6pm, and one or two of the things on that list will be done poorly. Give a tea drinker that same to-do list and they’ll pause to reflect and prioritize what really needs to be on that list… without getting around to it.
That’s why we need both together. Yin AND yang. Lately, I’ve been cutting my to-do lists in half— but actually DOING them. I also make sure to put somewhere on there “nothing” or “day dream” and take that as seriously as everything else on that list. Dead seriously. As serious as a giant beaver drinking coffee, busily building a dam while its whole damn species goes extinct.