I have always been fascinated by the famous Edward Hopper 1940s painting I used in yesterday’s Catch of a stark corner cafe in the middle of the city in the pre-dawn hours with three guests seated at the counter and a server working the night shift. There is nothing on the walls, hardly anything on the counter, the street is empty and the feeling is one of isolation. The people are there, but they are expressionless, hardly communicating. It’s an existential painting and reminds me of the play, “No Exit” by Jean-Paul Sartre. There is no door in the picture except for what appears to be a small door to the kitchen. The people seem encased in glass — trapped, but trying to make the best of it. The painting came out in 1942 in the middle of WWII and is fitting considering a pessimistic view of the world at that time.
As this painting has grown in popularity, many parodies have come out. One has Santa Claus at the counter with four reindeer, one has Star Wars characters. There’s one with Bert and Ernie and Big Bird, and one with the whole Simpson clan. But the most famous parody is one painted in the 1980s by the Austrian artist, Gottfried Heinwein, that pictures Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and James Dean seated at the counter being served by Elvis Presley. It’s revealing to see these icons interacting. Heinwein pictures them much more animated than in Hopper’s original. It looks to me as if James Dean has just cracked a dry joke, Marilyn and Elvis are laughing and Bogart is unmoved, staring at his glass, making it look as if the joke was on him and he didn’t find it that funny. They’re interacting, but they’re still behind glass.
Seeing these cultural icons who have all passed on makes this look like some kind of heaven or hell, depending on the permanency of the situation — most likely hell. Trapped, but trying to make the best of it. That’s actually a picture of human existence: trapped, but making the best of it. Small town diners and cafes do this to people — they bring out their best and their worst. It’s a little like a bar without the alcohol.
Cafes are good for showcasing average people. We need to learn to see people for who they really are. We need to learn empathy. Most people to us are like this picture — icons trapped behind glass like a fire extinguisher waiting for an emergency. We may need to break some glass to get in, but once we do, we’ll have contact. We’ll wake someone up, and that someone might just be ourselves.
Empathy is to climb inside of someone else’s reality and experience life from there. It’s the only way we can truly understand someone else. It’s what Jesus did for us, and what He asks us to do with each other. “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:5-7). He literally became one of us, and not just to understand us, but ultimately to save us.