on drinking, ranting, and other toxic habits

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.

on paths of least resistance (and destruction)

On a recent hike through Montgomery Bell State Park, I was struck by the way the trail was carefully created to offer challenge followed by beauty. I have done this particular hike several times, once getting so lost that I thought I might become an unofficial and very smelly backcountry groundskeeper. Remembering that disorientation, I was keenly aware of my surroundings, and paid attention in a way that I normally don’t.

 Nashville had record-breaking rainfall this winter and spring. Although the Appalachian Mountains on Tennessee’s eastern border are famously home to generations of Scotsmen, middle Tennessee recently mirrored Scotland with months of gray rainy days. Walking though the woods, the evidence of the rain was everywhere. Soggy ground sprang under each step, and rivers’ voices were louder than normal as the water rushed past. Tracks of mud were evident as rivulets large and small formed during the most ardent downpours.

 Montgomery Bell’s trails are well cared for and defined, but now, because of the rain, there were huge gashes of mud and mulch that crossed the curated paths, at times making it difficult to find the way forward. Heavy rains gorged the earth, scarring thoughtfully laid paths with newly formed trenches that led nowhere. Walking along, it was easy to follow the path of least resistance, to go along with the rain until I realized that once again I had lost my way and wondered off the path and into a ditch.

 In my fifth decade, I am often struck by how difficult survival can be. Carefully choosing my steps, searching for the trail’s progress, I considered the many ways we move through life. The act of forward movement can feel impossible sometimes, especially when the best path is unclear. Particularly challenging is the choice to resist the instinct to function out of our most entrenched places. Sometimes it is hard to even recognize when a choice will take us into a ditch or elevate us to higher ground. Like pouring rain that falls, carving deep ravines across a more thoughtfully laid trail, our worst instincts tempt us to leave the best route and instead follow a path leading to our own destruction.

Consider the way we engage with difference. We know by now that we cannot talk with people who come from different walks of life without first recognizing our own bias, remembering that our experiences shape us in meaningful ways, that these experiences are incredibly different, and that in order to walk toward others we should expect to hear new ideas and different perspectives. When we enter into these conversations, it is rather easy to wonder off the curated path, stepping unknowingly onto the rugged path cut through the earth from the many downpours that came before. We say we want to learn something new, but then we hear a different experience, we react badly, and we end up in a ditch, often without even realizing we stepped away from the path created for our own good.

 We feel skeptical when another’s experience seems to challenge our understanding of how the world works, and we step into the ditch.

We feel attacked by the hard reality someone else lives, and we step into the ditch.

We feel exhausted by the effort it takes to keep moving forward in awkward conversations, and we step into the ditch.

We feel defensive when we hear the unfamiliar perspective of another, and we step into the ditch.

We feel confused and alienated when we perceive that “normal” for others is wildly unfamiliar for us, and we step into the ditch.

Like accumulating water, gathering into franticly formed streams, we look for the path of least resistance. As spontaneously formed rivers cut a new path that leads nowhere, the meaningful path becomes harder to discern, until one day it is hard to see at all. Our interactions are like that. The more we follow our instincts, defensive and touchy, easily offended and looking for a way to escape the discomfort that comes with reaching across lines of difference, the more we find ourselves on the unstable ground of recently moved earth. We look up to see we are in a ravine—with like minded others—trapped in a dead end and far from a path made for many feet.

When we follow our worst instincts, we lose our bearings, and eventually, our hope, finding ourselves in a muddy ditch rather than on a path toward a clearing where we can share ideas and form a society with room for all. However, when we keep our footing and avoid the destructive streams rushing by, we quickly recognize that engaging with others who experience the world differently inspires our own curiosity, increasing our capacity for mystery, humility and wonder. It becomes obvious that the carefully laid path is the one that leads to wonder, to curiosity, to walking with another person who stands in their own shoes and interacts with the world differently than you do.

Walking on the shared path is difficult, and requires a deep focus on context, on orienting ourselves to our surroundings. It requires us to step over small currents that can sweep us away, to maintain our bearings, to choose our steps—and words—wisely. It requires skill that can be honed and strengthened. We can get better at this! It begins with a commitment to notice the rivulets, to observe how they end, and to choose instead to keep walking on the path toward a clearing.

How easily we stumble onto the path of least resistance, haphazardly created by a downpour.  The rains will keep coming, and the way forward will continue to be obscured by destructive habits. A better way is to slowly walk the trail meant to take us through challenging terrain with others, but ultimately, toward beauty.