I like starting off my busy day with the warmth, tang, and stimulation of a cup of rich coffee, but it has not always been this way. In fact, the smell of coffee used to make me nauseous. This was an acquired reaction, and my parents’ doing. They would not let me drink coffee when I was a kid, but the very first time I convinced them to let me try some, when I was a teenager, they craftily allowed me to drink an entire pot. It took me about 15 minutes. It was around 11 o’clock at night.
The next several hours passed in a jittery, queasy, insomniac haze, and from that point on, the scent of java made me gag reflexively. The only other food I disliked more was cheese; as long as I could remember, all but the mildest cheeses tasted to me like the rotting milk I knew they were. Ironically, in college I wound up working in a coffee shop, where I acclimated myself to coffee aroma, but even then I did not learn to enjoy the brew I was serving. This put me at a disadvantage during finals: my classmates could fuel their midnight cramming sessions with a cup of espresso, but I had to chug a couple of bottles of Mountain Dew for the same effect. Still, I liked Mountain Dew, so I was never motivated to develop a taste for coffee.
This changed in my mid-twenties, when I was teaching English to workers in Japan. The country was in in its early-nineties economic boom, and companies were offering English classes to their employees as a perk. The classes typically met at one end of the workday: either 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., or 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. And the companies at which I taught were located all over Tokyo, a city in which it basically takes one hour to get from any one point to any other point. Throw in a few hours for dinner each night, drinking some nights, and basic hygiene in the mornings, and I – like everyone else in the city – was not getting my proper eight hours of sleep every day.
One of my more upscale early assignments was teaching a group of a dozen or so students at an oil corporation, every Tuesday and Thursday morning. There was a wide range of participants in this class, including a couple of high-ranking executives, several young salarymen, and five or six “office ladies” – usually young, unmarried women whose positions were considered virtually secretarial, even if they were performing work like accounting or design. The best students were distributed equally through these groups.
Every class, at the 9 a.m. break, all the office ladies would file out of the meeting room and return a few minutes later, carrying trays loaded with sugar, creamer, and Styrofoam cups of coffee. The first time this happened, I was mildly horrified. If I accepted the drink, it would be my first full cup of coffee since that nauseous teenage night; but I felt, particularly because the women had been conspicuously sent out of the room to obtain it, that if I declined I would been seen as an ungrateful American boor. Social nicety won out, and I forced the bitter brew down my throat. I did not enjoy it.
But I did shake off some of the weighty drowsiness that had been clinging to me since my busy teaching schedule had kicked in. And when I arrived to teach the next class after a couple more overburdened days, I could feel that accumulating weight growing harder and harder to bear. So when the nine o’clock break came, and the men sat back in their chairs to chat while the women stepped out to provide for us, I found myself looking forward to the office ladies’ energizing offering. And I quickly learned that adding a lot of sugar and creamer could make the potion more palatable, like thoroughly melted ice cream. So after only a few weeks of this, I learned to enjoy the drink that used to make me gag.
Humans are oddly malleable creatures. It can be hard to tell which of our preferences are fixed and immutable, and which are merely circumstantial. After dozens of open-minded attempts to eat brie, I have given up all hope of ever actually enjoying it. Yet I overcame my aversion to coffee in less than a month. Sometimes when figuring out fulfillment, we find ourselves in a position of having to contend with a task or a situation that we find totally unpalatable. And it may well be that the task or situation is something we could never reconcile ourselves to. But it also may be something we could learn to tolerate, or even love. So be true to yourself, and don’t put up with something that, in the end, you will always despise; but at the same time, never forget how wonderfully capable and adaptable you can be in pursuit of your ideals.