Who Am I? (A Drive-Thru Existential Crisis)
What have I become? The thought occurred to me as I was pulling out of the McDonald’s drive-thru clutching my $1 medium black coffee on the way to work this morning. This was the fourth time in the last week that I have found myself in this shameful position. My daughter recently began a new job, and she and my wife have been emptying the coffee pot on the way out the door. I could have made a fresh pot but, well, you know that takes time, and I was running late, and McDonald’s has $1 coffee, so….
Why have this morning’s caffeine-procuring exertions visited such emotional and existential distress upon me? The answer is simple. Because in my mind I am manifestly not the kind of person who drinks $1 coffee from McDonald’s. This is not the story I am pleased to tell myself about who I am and what kind of tastes I have cultivated and what principles I adhere to.
For starters, there was a time when I would have avoided drive-thrus like the plague. They were a symbol of everything that was wrong with a convenience-addicted, gas-guzzling, over-consumptive culture that only wanted stuff that was fast and cheap and didn’t care about the effect it had on the environment. I would drive by a fast-food restaurant and glare with no small amount of disdain at the long lineups of exhaust-belching oversized vehicles waiting for their mass-produced faux food and drink. Like the Pharisee praying in the temple, I would pass by and give thanks that I was not like all those wretched tax-collectors. But then COVID happened. And drive-thrus became “safer” and thus more acceptable. Kind of? I guess?
There was also time when I imagined myself to be something of a coffee connoisseur (I emphasize the word “imagined” in the preceding sentence). I would pretend to know things about the fineness of the grind, the roaster, the preparation method, etc. When I travelled (especially to Europe), I would love to visit local cafes and sip small cups (often with saucers) of strong cappuccino or espresso. I would sigh and shake my head at the provincial backwater soil from which I regrettably sprung, with its undiscerning consumers gulping down their bathtub-sized fast-food coffees. They really need to learn how to enjoy less quantity and better quality. Such a shame, that I was cursed to wander among these Philistines.
I would return from my travels full of resolve to become a better consumer, to model better coffee behaviour to those around me, to live out the truth of who I really was. To this day, our kitchen cupboards are littered with the detritus of my hubris. There are various French press carafes, Italian stove-top moka pots, milk steamers for lattes, all which are used, shall we say in moderation? In the past I’ve had cappuccino machines and pour-overs and who knows what else. Whatever my actual coffee making habits were, I very much liked the idea of not being the sort of person that just drank coffee from a boring old drip coffee maker.
As I was driving out of the McDonald’s parking lot this morning, there was a collision of stories. There was the story I preferred, the story I thought reflected my true self. And there was the actual story. In the former version, I am the sort of guy whose natural habitat is a European-style cafe with good, expensive strong coffee that is produced with time and care and attention to detail. In the latter version, I am the sort of guy who is late for work and races through the drive-thru for an oversized cheap cup of a hot black beverage that marginally approximates coffee. In this collision of stories, my imagined self was the vehicular equivalent of a Toyota Prius, and the real story was a Dodge Ram. The result of the collision was predictable enough.
In a recent article in The New York Times, David Brooks explores the notion of self-awareness. Based on recent “discoveries” in modern psychology, he concludes that it’s a mirage. We think we know why we do the things that we do, but really, we have far less clarity than we like to think. The article begins thus:
One of the most unsettling findings of modern psychology is that we often don’t know why we do what we do. You can ask somebody: Why’d you choose that house? Or why’d you marry that person? Or why’d you go to graduate school? People will concoct some plausible story, but often they really have no idea why they chose what they did.
If you ask someone the reason why they think what they do or do what they do, Brooks says, you should expect to hear not a blow-by-blow description of the factors that go into these things, but an exercise in storytelling. We are storytelling creatures, through and through, and so we construct stories (in real time and in hindsight) to explain ourselves to ourselves and those around us. Often, these stories flatter us or at least reframe things according to some kind of redemptive arc. The actual cause(s) of our thoughts and behaviours might in the end reduce to dumb instinct or emotion or the path of least resistance (as in my coffee misadventures above). We are, more often than not, a hot mess of conflicted causes and unreflective reactivity. Sometimes a door opens, and we just walk through it. The story comes later.
You may have noticed that I put the word “discoveries” in quotation marks a few paragraphs above. I did this because I’m not convinced that the idea that we’re a mystery to ourselves is something modern psychology “discovered.” This unflattering feature of human nature has been noted by the odd philosopher and theologian over the past few millennia. Paul’s letter to the Romans puts it perhaps most memorably: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Rom. 7:15) Paul attributed the dissonance between the story he wished were true about himself and the far less impressive reality to sin. Which is sort of an unpopular concept these days, I know, but has the benefit of being, well, true. As the hit drama The Morning Show’s character Corey Ellison (played by Billy Crudup) put it, after nine and a half episodes of widespread conflicted, depraved, and self-interested behaviour, of preferred stories endlessly colliding with the truth of the matter: “Human nature, it’s surprisingly universal, and it’s universally disappointing.”
We can probably get better at being self-aware, but I suspect it’s a target that will forever elude our grasp. We will always remain something of a mystery to ourselves. Much as I wish this were not the case, and diligently as I will strive for congruence between my actual self and the story I prefer, I will likely always be the guy who thinks of himself as a sophisticated and discerning coffee drinker as he’s blasting through the drive-thru for whatever he can grab for a dollar. This is who we are.