We go to restaurants to be made dinner and to theaters to see plays. We go to concert halls to hear music and to cafes to drink coffee. Agreed. However, when I am at such places, I nonetheless sometimes find myself wondering what we are all doing there.
Take a cafe. Most of the clientele are certainly drinking some variety of coffee. And yet, as good as the coffee may be, many of the customers could have made just as good, if not better, coffee at their own homes. Some of the customers are reading or talking with a friend, but you don’t really need a cafe to do those things either. Perhaps they just like the recorded music, interior decor, and the stained sofa. Maybe that’s the best answer. But here’s another possible factor which I think accounts for at least part of the motivation: the cafe-goers simply want to be in a space with other cafe-goers.
I think this factor pertains to other public spots too. Imagine a pleasant theater, restaurant, or concert hall. Now picture that same place minus all people but you and a few friends. In a sense, everything would be the same. But really, it’s an entirely different place, and if you’re like me, you would leave with the distinct sense that you hadn’t quite received the overall experience for which you had paid. For, while we do go to these places for the products they advertise (music, drama, food, etc.), we also go to them to enter a sort of community.
If you like fancy terms, you could call this factor of human life “contextualization.” I am an individual human person. But to really understand myself, I need to see myself within the context of other human persons. I have friends. But to really understand my friendships, I need to see them within the context of other friendships. When individuals or groups lose this contextualization by isolating themselves from the whole, they lose something of the truth of their identities. For we are all parts that are so connected as to become unintelligible when cut off from the whole.
The funny thing is, we often don’t even know the people who sit by us at these restaurants or concerts. But perhaps that’s part of the point. We may be strangers, but for the moment we are under the same roof, sharing coffee from the same pot, food from the same kitchen, music from the same stage. For this moment in time, we are joined as a company of journeymen, sharing a particular spot on the trail, as fellow creatures called to a degree of unity we will only fully understand in heaven.
Granted, coffee, music, food, and plays are goods which can of themselves merit their asking price, and we’re generally not contemplating the unity of man in Christ when we go to a steakhouse. But even if we’re not conscious of it, when we come off the street and enter these impromptu communities, a deep and hidden place in our hearts says, “Hello,” to that one family of which we are all a part.
Image: Willard Metcalf, Cafe