Walking down Bourbon Street, I noticed a sign on the door of a bar that read, “Two Drink Minimum Per Guest.” Given the location and its famed debauchery, I was baffled at the notion that a bar would publicly announce its concern for the drinking limits of its customers. Misunderstanding completely, I was smitten by the old-fashioned idea that the bar would assume a thoughtful role in public indulgence. I imagined an iconic bartender, playing it cool but knowing how to cut someone off, refusing to escalate a situation that could go wrong in a hurry as he protected the peace and stability of his community.
Then I read the words again, acknowledged I had utterly missed the point, chuckled to myself, and moved on. Far from encouraging limits for their customers, this bar seemed to give public notice that only the indulgent need enter here: Unless you order at least two drinks, keep walking.
In Nashville, my favorite bar is a short walk from home. The Taproom is like a public living room or patio, a place where we regularly start an evening, end a night, or waste an afternoon. At our table, a bystander might hear comedy, history, philosophy, economics, theology or psychology as we discuss All The Things. I often belly laugh, yell, cry or cuss over a pint in this familiar space. This bar, in particular, has served as a counseling office, a church, a classroom, a reunion and a refuge as I talk with people I trust about how I live my life.
Seeing the sign in New Orleans made me wonder if a random bar has a social contract to encourage good in others. No; I think not. Despite my absurd love of the Taproom, I recognize that a bar is not required to uphold a commitment to the flourishing of their communities. I suppose it would be bad for business for a bartender to remind customers to thoughtfully consider the words they use and the actions they take.
People should, though.
Each of us has the chance to decide who we will be in the lives of those around us. The bar sign is helpful in that it clearly announces the kind of place it is. My initial misunderstanding of it made me wonder what how I label my relational approaches. Am I the kind of person who will always push people to indulge relentlessly in their own bad habits? Am I a person who will encourage others to keep going even when they know they should stop? Or am I such a faithful friend that I will cut others off when they are being toxic to themselves and others?
What if our public institutions had to articulate the unspoken rules that guide their discourse and actions? Would it be true for our houses of worship or schools to hang signs that say, “Here in our community, we will affirm the dignity of every human; we won’t ignore the experiences of anyone, or allow you to fear difference or to blame others for your discomfort”? I hope so, but I fear that even in these places we simply encourage the worst impulses in others, ignoring outlooks, beliefs and habits that destroy hopeful and compassionate communities.
Each of us is a walking bar of sorts. In every single interaction we have the chance to provide a place for others to find a listening ear, to restore themselves after a long week, and to offer advice as they think about who they are and who they are becoming. In each conversation, we have the chance to allow people to spew hatred, to believe the world is against them, to blame others for their own perceived failures, and to fan the flames of negativity.
We have the chance to guide them to stop while they are ahead. We can help others minimize their own toxic ranting, or cut them off before they get drunk from the blame, complaints, or chronic dissatisfaction they spew at others. We can be the bar with a two drink minimum or we can be the bar who will cut a friend off before they hurt themselves or others. What a privilege.
What if, like the upfront bar on Bourbon, we wore signs that let people know how we approach friendship? What if we had to own our default position in relationships?
“Willing to support your worst impulses.”
“More committed to your growth as a human than to our comfort as friends.”
“Not gonna stop you no matter how sick you sound.”
“Will likely make you angry when I call BS on your rant.”
“Happy to nod along as you ignore your shortcomings, obsess over small slights and blame others for your disappointment in life.”
“Committed to the person I think you can be, and willing to remind you of who you are.”
It might feel comfortable and familiar to agree with every perspective a friend shares, but it is not loving, and might even be dangerous. Left to our own devices, each of us can become consumed with ourselves and obsessed with what we deserve. We need friends and public institutions willing to challenge toxic ways of thinking. We need others to provide context for our narrowly derived thoughts.
Do friends know you to be a two drink minimum friend? Do you push folks to go too far, even if it will eventually hurt them or others? Or do you care enough to disagree, to correct, to speak up against hidden impulses and encourage people to be self-aware without being self-consumed?
Be the bar that leaves people better than they found them, not the one who helps people try to blackout and forget before the night is over.