I once was a coffee snob. The key word is was. It all began in Costa Rica. I traveled there in 2011 to give several talks, and was introduced to the wonderful world of coffee (before then, I had been only a Tea Granny, and that I still am). You can’t go to one of the best coffee growers in the world and not begin to enjoy the luxurious liquid that is coffee.
I returned to enjoy fine coffee shops, including Vancouver’s wonderful 49th Parallel. I was that person who, when going to a restaurant, would order coffee and ask, “How fresh is the coffee?” and the waitress would usually say, “I’ll put on a new pot for you.” And I would be quite satisfied at the fresh cup of java coming my way. But last fall, everything changed.
I went on a 40 day experience in the wilderness at Madonna House (which I’ve written about previously here). Suddenly, daily coffee was no longer a reality—it was relegated to special occasions, namely Sunday. Their founder Catherine Doherty, a Russian baroness, had instituted “tea time” at several periods throughout the day, and as much as I love tea too, something happens when you’re deprived of something you like: you seem to want it even more. I would drink the tea but think, “I wish I could have coffee.”
And then Sunday came. Madonna House lives a spirit of poverty so although there would be no “whole milk latte” or fancy, freshly ground coffee beans, Sunday was the day where there was, at least, plain ‘ol coffee. Having been deprived of it for several days, I can’t begin to tell you how good it was.
Then, imagine my surprise one Monday when coffee was in a canister at my table. I eagerly poured a cup and savored my first sip: “Wow, this is really good; it tastes even better than yesterday’s coffee,” I said. One of the members then said to me, “It is yesterday’s coffee; it was leftover so we reheated it.” The coffee connoisseurs out there might cringe but I have lived to tell the tale and can testify that it tasted even better after 24 hours.
Then there was the day I was assigned to work on the farm. The community had just slaughtered 4 cows and over 30 sheep, and I was one of the people tasked with cutting up the meat. Since our job was more challenging, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that when we took a break for tea time, those of us cutting up the meat got a special treat: Coffee! But it was instant coffee. Well, no joke: It. Was. Delicious.
Through all this, I enjoyed coffee more. Why? Because I appreciated it more. Why? Because it wasn’t accessible every day, so it became “special” and thus notable. Unfortunately this experience is uncommon in the western world. We have such excess that we are rarely, if ever, deprived. Whatever our mood, craving, or desire, we can generally satisfy it. It’s not that to do so is necessarily bad, it’s just that when we don’t temper our consumption of things, we can find ourselves losing the ability to see the special and to grow in discipline.
As I have reflected on our culture of late, what has struck me is how, if we are to be a better society, we need to get back to basics like growing in virtues such as temperance and prudence. A virtuous society must pursue the good, but what is good is often not easy. Being ethical in law, in politics, in medicine, or in any field for that matter, requires sometimes going against what we want or against what is easy, because it is what is right. We are more likely to do this if we exercise our willpower. Just as someone who is physically strong must work out, must start with lighter weights and increase the heaviness, so too, if we want the moral discipline to do the right thing even when it’s hard, do we need to “exercise” our non-physical will and look for little ways to consistently practice going against impulses. This is where depriving ourselves of something we desire, such as coffee, exercises those “muscles” so we’re stronger when it really matters. It’s not that consuming coffee or something we crave is necessarily bad (nor is it wrong to enjoy a “finer” product—I still enjoy a luxury coffee now and then), it’s simply that when we practice saying no at times, it helps us in future situations where we really should say no. It also helps us appreciate what we do get, when we get it.
Author and speaker Matthew Kelly has written about this when he says,
“Learning to delay gratification is one of life’s essential lessons…You cannot have a successful marriage, be a great parent, maintain good health, establish financial stability, or become educated unless you are willing to delay gratification. The best at anything are better than everyone else at delaying gratification--and that includes the great Christian heroes, champions, and saints who fill the history books” (Source: Rediscover Jesus).
That’s why, every morning, I pull a piece of paper out of what I call my “Sacrifice Box.” On the papers is written the three things I ideally like to consume daily: Coffee, tea, and a little sweet (90% dark chocolate and gummies are my favorites). Each morning I choose to deprive myself of one of them. I put my hand in the box and close my eyes and ask God to help me pick out the item that will be most pleasing to Him, that will help me grow in holiness. Then, whichever paper I grab is the object I deprive myself of that day. When it’s free coffee day at McDonald’s, that’s usually when the coffee sacrifice is picked out. And the day that’s set aside to go to a tea room with friends is typically when the tea sacrifice is selected. The deprivation pinches, but it also builds self-control and helps us make decisions based on will power, not feeling.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” –Galatians 5:22-23