How do you take your coffee? Your answer may reveal a lot about you. Are you a purist, only drinking it black? Do you pour over, use a french press, or use a standard coffee maker? Do you grind your own beans? Do you use flavored creamers?
I started drinking coffee at 14, when I was a freshman at my boarding school in Germany for Missionary Kids. I didn’t want to drink coffee, but I did it to be polite: my host family drank a cup of black coffee every Sunday after church with a platter of sandwiches. I accepted the coffee because I didn’t want to appear rude. I choked it down Sunday after Sunday until one day I discovered that I liked it.
Many of the other Missionary Kids I went to school with also drank coffee. The students whose parents served in Middle Eastern countries were especially hard core, bragging that unless it had the consistency of mud, it didn’t count as real coffee. Those of us who grew up in European countries knew that if you could see through the coffee as it was poured, it was going to be too weak.
In twelfth grade, a group of us took a bus to the Czech Republic over Spring Break for a week long missions trip. We stayed at a conference center with other teams of short-term missionaries, some who had traveled as far away as the States. At breakfast one morning, a friend and I were grumbling about the much-too-weak coffee we had poured into our cups (“It’s practically brown water!” we lamented.) We sat at a table with an older couple from Florida. They had the same cups of coffee, but winced when they took a sip. They grabbed the hot water kettle to water it down.
My friend and I stared in disbelief, then got away as quickly as we could to giggle and roll our eyes at those crazy Americans. Just like that, we had defined the boundaries of our in-group. Either you drank your coffee strong and black, or you weren’t really one of us.
We do this as adults too. From what you wear to how you vote to what you drive, we are skilled at drawing social boundaries to keep people in or keep them out. Moms are especially prone to this, an unspoken judgment passed on those who parent differently: cloth diapering, co-sleeping, baby-wearing, and breastfeeding are all issues around which we draw dividing lines.
The problem is that we can draw so many lines around us that we either 1) end up with no friends, or 2) exist in an insular friend bubble of our own making. Neither choice is healthy. The first option leaves us lonely and disconnected, and the second option leaves us in an echo chamber surrounded by people just like us. And when we are surrounded by people just like us, we limit our opportunities to grow and to listen and learn from others who are different. Even worse, it leads us to keep people out on the margins instead of inviting them into our lives.
The cure for this is to focus on commonalities instead of differences.
When we focus on what we have in common with someone, we are affirming our shared humanity. When a difference is important enough to address, we are willing to listen to their perspective from a relationship rooted in common ground. In this way we can truly be known by our love, when we reach across political aisles, across socio-economic divides, across cultural barriers. Simply inviting someone to sit with us can be a powerful gesture of love.
Think of the people on the outskirts of your life. Who can you reach out to today?
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