The View From Rock Bottom

A man turns to his friend and says, “I think I’ve really hit rock bottom.”

The friend says, “That’s great.”

The man turns to his friend, confused and hurt, and he says, “What do you mean?  How is that great?”

The friend says, “Now you can learn to walk.”

People have an odd way of speaking about life, especially in America.  The things that we value and need most–family, friends, our jobs, our schedules, our communities, our stuff–are also the things that we spend MOST of our time complaining about.  And I think I know why this is:  We have been  conditioned to believe–at some deep, embedded part of ourselves–that we can, and maybe SHOULD, have things exactly the way we want them.  Whether it’s part of American collective dreaming, the effects of living in a primarily Capitalist society, or just because we are prone to enjoying flashy things…we think we should be able to custom order life and all its components so it matches our greatest desires and tiniest preferences.  And when life unfolds in ways that are different than our desired, fantasy dreaming, we tend to get angry and frustrated and disappointed; and those feelings reveal themselves in our incredibly angry and frustrated reactions to seemingly mundane, innocuous things.

I recently started working at Starbucks.  You can learn a lot about our culture by how people order their coffee.

It’s a fairly well known cliché at this point; the Starbucks customer who wants a Grande, extra hot, no foam, no fat Caramel Machiato with three pumps hazelnut, in a Venti cup, decaf, and I’m not repeating myself, and I expect this to be right and quick or there will be hell to pay.  And like all cliches, this is a pail comparison to the actual complex and deep truth of Starbucks customers.  That truth can be represented in two complimentary Customer Archtypes:

1.  The customer who is well-versed in Starbucks culture and products, and while he/she has specific tastes and preferences, is fully aware that it’s a tasty treat to have a cup of deliciousness, not a sacred right.  They have certain things that they like, and they know what they don’t want, but they are there to have fun and have a snack, they are not offended if questions are asked, and they are forgiving if mistakes are made.  This would be, I would guess, 90% of Starbucks customers.  They are lovely.

2.  The customer who is not ONLY the cliché customer from before (very entitled, very specific, very demanding) in their beverage order…it extends to every aspect of their Starbucks experience.  They don’t just want the drink done in very specific ways…they want you to take their order in a specific way, they want to be able to be “rung up” at the register in very specific ways (sometimes insisting that even the price should match their desires, despite the cost of what they ordered), that you take their money and return their money in specific ways, that the milk and sugar is a certain way, that the newspapers are specifically laid out, that the bathrooms are unoccupied, that the children in the store genuflect appropriately, that the weather respond to their mood, that parking spaces be readily available, that standard drink orders are stricken from the menu so as not to offend their gaze…etc.  Their desire for control, their impulse for micromanaging, their lust for a customized experience that extends to the very cells of the Barista’s body, all this looms SO LARGELY that it’s not entirely clear what they are doing in the store…but drinking coffee is really a very small part of it.  These people raise the level of anxiety in the entire room by at least 13 degrees.  They change the very atmosphere, like a sudden cold front swooping across a coastal region.  These would be about 8% of customers.

The other 2% are people who have either never heard of Starbucks, or have at least never stepped foot in one.  They are adorably overwhelmed.

But it’s this second group of customers that, I believe, represent the vast majority of American citizens.  Some of us have that level of wish-fulfillment at Starbucks, others have it in their personal relationships, while others have it wherever they work, while still others find it in online gaming or cooking or sports or other activities that can either be controlled and dictated to at the most miniscule, chemical level, or allow for unadulterated RAGE….or possibly both.  In all of these instances, our anxiety and anger comes not from the coffee, or the activity, or the things we are engaging…I believe those are outward expressions of an inward situation.  We don’t rage and worry because our coffee isn’t perfect…we do it because LIFE isn’t perfect.  The coffee, and the Barista, are just easy and unfortunate focal points.

I learned nothing in my year abroad as much as I learned this:  Most of us live in a fantasy world, and the fantasy that surrounds us is that we DESERVE certain things, and we are able to EXPECT that life cater to our whims.  It’s the fantasy that allows us to face disappointment and heartache with complete obtuseness and denial.  It’s the fantasy that says, “There’s nothing wrong with me, there’s something wrong with the WORLD and I’m gonna be pissed about it.”

We are used to hearing the term “hitting rock bottom,” as an expression of untold disaster and catastrophe.  The idea is that we have messed up so badly, or life has brought us so low, that we can’t go any lower, we have HIT the bottom…and we don’t know how to get back up.

But there’s an interesting thing that happens when we get to the very bottom:  Our point of view changes.  No longer do we see things from up above, no longer do we have our heads in the clouds, no longer do we see through our fantasies and illusions about the world and how it should be.  From Rock Bottom, we find our footing and we look up and out.  We see things, not as we think they should be, not as we wish they were, but AS IS.  It hurts to crash to the ground, it can kill us to be brought so low….but if we survive the fall, then for the first time we can begin walking somewhere new and somewhere real…rather than hovering above reality, aloft on our fantasies.

When you are left with nothing to hold you up, you are still confronted with SOMETHING.  You are merely viewing life from a different angle.  When you have hit Rock Bottom, you are invited to open your eyes and take in the view.  You will see something new in the distance, something you could NEVER see from above.  if you choose, you can begin walking toward it.

Welcome to Earth.

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4 thoughts on “The View From Rock Bottom

  1. “It’s the climb” — Today a girl in my English class asked me what that song title meant and I think my answer was a little similar to what you said here (without the Starbucks analogy though, which I really liked btw)!

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