A flowery pinny, a flat white and a lesson in humility

We need to get over ourselves so we can know ourselves…

Few know that I’ve been wearing a flowery pinny and serving frothy coffee three days a week, every week for the past 15 months. I’d voted to keep myself in pocket money while I polished the book proposal, but while this ‘little job’ was my safety net, it often felt like a shameful secret.

And my pride often got the better of me.

Pride, the dictionary tells us, is the belief that you’re better or ‘more than’ anyone else. I beg to differ. Pride is a defence mechanism born of the fear that we really are much ‘less than’ everyone else. It makes you haughty and secretive, and ashamed of having a bridge job.

But really, who cares?

We do what we have to do in order to get where we want to go. Which is where humility comes in. This, the dictionary tells us, is the quality of having a modest view of one’s importance; free from pride or arrogance.

Importantly, however, this doesn’t mean seeing ourselves as unimportant — it means knowing and valuing ourselves enough to not need pride or arrogance. But we fight humility. We fear it, believing that being humble means admitting we’re not enough. Pride seems like the safer option.

The customers certainly knew this, but not all of them, since I must acknowledge a handful of regulars with a deep bow of gratitude. Every day they came with ready smiles, bringing joy to an otherwise humdrum exchange.

As for the others, well, people generally treat each other like shit, don’t they?

On a busy day it became the norm to be barked at, patronised or dismissed as a second rate citizen simply for serving up cake. At first I thought it was the pinny. Do we see people earning minimum wage as having minimum status, I wondered, the cleaners and cooks and caretakers?

Or maybe it had something to do with my gender? No, it wasn’t that. The female customers could be as abhorrent as the male. Was it because I couldn’t make seven drinks with two hands in less than five minutes? Or maybe it had nothing to do with me at all and was all about them?

So I paid attention and began taking field notes.

On a daily basis I witnessed the pain of people acting out their insecurities, protecting their most private selves with public shows of one-upmanship. Skipping the queue. Questioning the prices. Complaining about everything.

People wielded their impatience like a weapon with which they could intimidate me. But, you see, impatience is a crucial part of the fight against humility. It says, I will not wait for my slice of the pie. I am deserving of it right now.

But fighting for first place serves no one. There’s a space in the queue for all of us and we all get to the front in the end. Until then, we do what we have to do to get where we want to go.

At least that’s what I kept telling myself as I dug deep to find my compassion in the face of all this bad behaviour. I wanted to understand why so many of us are so deeply committed to hurting ourselves (and each other). I watched those who were oblivious to anything outside of their own sphere of existence.

Humans have a knack of being totally self-absorbed and totally self-unaware. It’s all push-shove, sod the queue.

Sounds harsh, I know, but it’s also fair. We’re all caught up in life’s fundamental paradox of self and other. While we mostly think only of ourselves, we do so primarily through the lens of how we’re perceived by others — aka whether you think I’m important or not. And while we’ve learnt to compete, to exclude, to separate, we crave acceptance and inclusion.

And this is precisely why we push and shove, so we don’t get forgotten or left out. This ‘them and us’ mentality is all consuming. We’re so engrossed in the business of self-defence (and getting to the front of the queue) that we imagine attack where there is none. And when we make enemies out of everyone, we undermine our shared experience.

Really, you say, all this from a tearoom?

Oh yes. I watched and listened and learned. We need that queue so we have a place alongside everyone else. And we need each other to know ourselves. Our point of difference is our point of recognition — and this doesn’t make us any less important or any less worthy as individuals.

Pride, you see, is vastly overrated. We need to get over ourselves and get to know ourselves instead, to become both aware and self-aware.

Trust me, I learned a thing or two about myself while frothing that milk. After months of scrutinising the customers, I let them become my mirrors, my teachers. As I watched them, I witnessed my own pride and my own impatience — more than that, my fear of being left at the back of the queue for the book deal.

With every flat white (which is what, exactly, a coffee with milk?) I had to move through my pride (not swallow it) to remember that we are always in transition — that we do what we have to do to get where we want to go, but it need not be a struggle. And this is another of life’s precious paradoxes.

Every day we walk the line between what we really want to happen (book deal, swift service) and what needs to happen first (write the book, wait in the queue).

If we get too mired in either extreme, we get stuck in a place where we could never be happy. If we always get what we want, we’ll always be hankering for more. If we’re always hankering for more, we’ll never get what we want. There has to be a balance, a middle path that we can happily walk between the two.

While pride wants everything now, humility is much more chill. It sees the setbacks and queues and delays simply as lived experience. Nothing is wasted. Humility doesn’t do defeat, defence or attack.

Humility tells us life can be two things at once (self and other). It tells us we can be two things at once (pinny wearer and writer). This can be as enriching as it is painful. It’s also as empowering as it is humbling.

So now the book proposal’s finished and I’ve hung up my pinny, I feel both have changed me for the better. It all counts. Everything counts. Remember this, my friends, and embrace the paradox wherever you are in the queue.

There’s no shame in it.

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