Complicating “You Can’t Pour from an Empty Cup”

Reading Tricia Hersey’s critique of the maxim “you can’t pour from an empty cup” got me thinking.

Are you ready to get poliTEAcal, Tea Friends?

Teacup with a few drops of tea in it, poised as if ready to pour.
You can’t pour from an empty cup.

Hersey’s Critique of Grind Culture

I read Tricia Hersey’s Rest is Resistance in January. What’s more, I keep picking it back up. Hersey draws me in again and again with her skilled storytelling. Her critiques of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy are also powerful. I wholeheartedly recommend this book!

Among her many critiques, Hersey calls out grind culture for framing rest either as something we will postpone until we die, or as something we do to become more productive. Capitalism, in other words, is trying to hijack our rest!

As a tea lover, her criticism of the famous maxim to fill your own cup because “you can’t pour from an empty cup” particularly caught my eye. Who hasn’t repeated this saying, right? 

Who Is Expected to Pour

Hersey notes how the maxim “you can’t pour from an empty cup”  is often directed at women, and calls out the disproportionate burden of labor put upon women–and especially women of color. She notes how the labor of Black and Latina women “”historically has been used to make the lives of white women less hectic and more relaxed” (p. 63). She emphatically declares: “I don’t want to pour anymore. It is time to begin the dismantling of the cult of busyness one person at a time” (p. 63).

I hear that!

Her critique of this saying shook me. On one hand, the maxim is a call for people, especially caregivers, not to become martyrs. It’s a call for caregivers to remember to fill their own cup. And, that’s important. On the other hand, the whole idea that someone fills her cup SO she can pour out some of its contents for someone else is a very instrumental way to look at people–including caregivers. It even sounds like “martyrdom-light.” Thank you, Hersey, for sharing your insights!

Why Is Anyone Pouring from Their Cup?

I kept thinking about this “fill your cup” maxim. Why is anyone pouring from their CUP? And why did I never notice this before?! Capitalism encourages workers to think in terms of competing for and dividing scarce resources (sharing from our own cups) instead of asking the bigger political question. Let’s get that question out in the open. How can resources be distributed differently so we can get a FULL POT OF TEA to share and pour from? No one (and no one group of people) should be asked to be the perpetual server(s) either! Nor should anyone be asked to fill someone else’s cup from their meager portion.

Why is anyone pouring from their CUP?

That’s my poliTEAcal take. I’ve posted other thoughts about how capitalism colonizes our thinkin–for example “Resist the Cult of Productivity.” In that post, I also share how a thoughtful tea practice can push back against this pressure. As someone who feels the power of tea, I’m interested in how we might rework the “pouring from an empty cup” saying. How could we improve or rewrite this maxim? Any ideas, Tea Friends?

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