When I graduated from college and worked in an office for the first time, I saw people drinking four, five, six cups of coffee every day. I decided that I never wanted to take up that habit, so I avoided coffee altogether.
Years later, when I started teaching an early morning class at Red Cloud Indian School, I swallowed my pride and finally give in. I reluctantly accepted the identity of a “coffee drinker,” though I never had more than a single, obligatory cup to get my day started. And it was so convenient. I lived with 13 other Jesuits, so we had a sizeable percolator and a designated coffee-maker. I never had to worry about doing the work.
After I finished the teaching gig, I stopped drinking coffee.
That is, until one fateful day, when I encountered one of the greatest of American inventions: the Keurig machine. Everything was so easy. As the company sells itself: “Choose. Brew. Enjoy. Three simple words that started a coffee brewing revolution.”
Immediately I started drinking coffee again. I hardly thought about whether I needed coffee or even wanted it. It just seemed so easy, so why not? This quick change raised an interesting question: Had I avoided coffee all these years to simply avoid the work of preparing a pot of coffee and the inevitable tensions that arise in community and office settings about who is responsible for the coffee, who will brew it and who drinks all of it anyway? In one fell swoop, all of those concerns dissipated with the arrival of the Keurig machine, which delivers custom cups of coffee on demand.
There was a shadow side to this revolution, however, which became apparent almost immediately. First, it is expensive. We typically bought Keurig cups for just under a dollar a cup, which is far more expensive, I assume, than a can of Folgers. Second, with the individual K-cups, we created more trash after each brew. Third, even this method of brewing is not entirely effortless. It takes a little time for the cup to brew. And who will refill the water? Who will buy the coffee? Who will clean the machine when old coffee begins to cake on it?
My experience of the Keurig machine revealed the flaw of individualism. No one needed to take responsibility for brewing a pot of coffee for the whole office. We could avoid any debate about what kind of coffee to buy. Everyone could choose their own cup and do their own work. It was not too long, however, before there were cracks in the façade of this apparent convenience.
To avoid the high cost and needless waste associated with K-cups, one of my conscientious co-workers purchased a plastic cup that could be reused and refilled with Folgers. Brilliant. I loved the idea and started using it immediately.
This practice raised another question. If I am filling the plastic filter with ground coffee each time I make a cup for myself, why not simply use a larger filter and more coffee, so that I can make coffee not just for myself but for others in my office?
In one of the most mundane practices in the culture of American workplaces, I think I have learned something about the fallacy of individualism and the promise of communal commitment. We started with a large coffee maker, sought an individualist solution in a Keurig machine, and yet, we might end up right where we started. Next time, rather than avoid the opportunity to do something kind for my co-workers or community members, I will embrace it.