In Starbucks: Existentialism 101
There I was on a Monday morning in a Starbucks in Manchester. A polite and pleasant young man caught me with strong eye contact and asked me what I wanted. ‘A medio latte please,’ I said with all the confidence and panache of someone who imagined himself in a backstreet cafe somewhere in Milan. ‘And your name please, sir?’ he asked, holding an anticipatory black permanent marker pen. In that one moment, in that millisecond between hearing the question and engaging my vocal chords, one burning existential question arrived in my consciousness, ‘who am I’?
What came out surprised me: ‘Yes, I am Steve.’ ‘Lovely sir, if you wait at the end, Lynsey will prepare your drink.’
I am not Steve though, I am David, or Dave, or even ‘Lynchy’ to my old schoolmates, but never Steve.
Thanking him, and still a bit surprised at my response, possibly like Nietzsche had his existential revelation in Costa, my gaze turned to find Lynsey. This sista-come-barista, who was now responsible for providing me with a tasty and milky hot beverage, had a bold and bright ‘Lynsey’ name badge.
‘Won’t be a minute sir,’ said Lynsey politely. Her ability to banter with her colleagues and customers without any discernible pause in coffee preparation was probably the result of years spent in the retail service industry. This skill was rendered even more impressive by her being able to carry out this chat and chore whilst a small round piece of white chewing gum seemed to hang in suspended animation between her cadmium red lips.
Some moments later came the cry ‘Latte for Steve,’ in a strong Manchester accent. For a moment, I waited for Steve to appear, other people peered up from the battery draining glow of their smartphones, anticipating the emergence of Steve onto the grand stage of life.
‘Oh, that’s me’ I thought, my hesitation almost giving away the fact that I was not Steve. Yet to all who had heard and looked, they just assumed that this man reaching his hand out to Lynsey, the sista-come-barista, was Steve. I went in as Dave, I left as Steve, and I even had a cup to prove it. A £2.95 name badge endorsed by one of the world’s leading coffee vendors.
Me and Steve added sugar and left, our borderline coffee cup personality distraction guiding us to the Cathedral gardens to consume our slowly cooling tastiness. Once there I had space to reflect on a moment in time where we could be whoever we wanted to be. Once finished, I cast Steve into a recycling street bin, just outside a large glass building. Just like my cup, it had a big name written on it. I could just imagine Hugo Boss ordering a Grande Building with a shot of vanilla.
Tinker, Tailor, Community Worker, Minister
As I walked on, I reflected on my Steve moment, thinking that we can, in so many ways, be whoever we want to be. Our name can determine how people know us, just in the same way that in this short piece, you have an image of Lynsey, a barista from Manchester who served a man called Steve. You know her through the words and the narrative that I have shared with you.
That was my reflection, that we can sometimes be known by what we are called and what we do. That our responses shape the existence that the world knows of us.
I am Peter, a Minister. I am Lucy, a Community Worker. I am Barry, I am homeless. The world and all the labels it produces are deeply embedded in who we are. We rarely introduce ourselves in a way that truly describes us. When I introduce myself I almost always say ‘Hi, I am Dave, Children’s and Family Worker for the Church of Scotland’. I wonder if that inspires people? Alternatively, I could say: ‘Hi, I am Dave, a dreamer of dreamers, a solver of problems, a visionary and a poet, a pragmatist and a comedian, a believer in a future life free from the frailties of humanity.’
For that one day though, I was Steve, unknown to the people in Starbucks, living a moment that was not the official David. Simply because a young man wrote ‘Steve’ in permanent marker on a Medio cup with lid.
So, my conclusion from this Starbucks 101 on Existentialism is simple.
It is the narrative that we create that can often make us the person that the world knows. The story that we vocalise in words, and actualise in actions, is the book that people read about us. We are in fact, living letters, walking stories so to speak. Jesus is a great example of this narrative in action, for he never came quoting bible verses or attending conferences. He was a living letter, an everyday, on the road, walking, talking narrative. He created the story that the world now knows him by. The book of Acts starts with ‘The first book I wrote was about everything Jesus began to do and teach’. This great narrative of movement and connection with his world. He was the author of his own book, his life created the story that the world now knows. What are our stories?
To me Lynsey is a barista at Starbucks, Manchester. To her I was Steve, a cool over 40s guy who drinks Latte, Medio with lid. I am in fact 54, but I am still over 40, you see how we can bend reality. Yet both Lynsey and I are so much more.
So, if you want be Steve, Lynsey or whoever, visit Starbucks, for in that one coffee shop of alternate realities, you can be whoever you choose to be. Or maybe the next time I visit, and the young guy holds the anticipatory marker pen and asks ‘your name please?’, smile at his panicked face as you reply ‘Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky’. Try fitting that on a Medio Latte!
The reality is that you do not need a Starbucks to be whoever you want to be! You are the one who writes the story that the world knows you by! And you are the child of the one who writes the story of the whole universe. Therefore, my advice, and the sum of my reflection is, make it a good one.
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