Social media and tea don’t really seem to go together sometimes. After all, you can’t taste or smell the tea in the photos posted on this blog, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Google+, Pinterest, etc. However, you can discuss tea. Which is what brought me to the agony of the leaves.
The phrase “the agony of the leaves” refers to the supposed torture the tea leaves undergo when subjected to hot water. This prompted a pal online to pose these questions: “Why speak of ‘agony’ of the leaves? Why not ‘joy’ of the leaves?” Great questions. Who is to say that the tea leaves are suffering as they steep? It’s sort of a “glass half full – glass half empty” kind of mindset.
Scientifically speaking, tea leaves have no sentience, that is, no self-awareness and no sense of pain or pleasure. But figuratively and poetically speaking, the dance of the leaves with the water can be seen as akin to writhing in great pain or dancing in ecstasy. James Norwood Pratt says the expression is a way to describe “the unfurling of rolled leaf in boiling water.” Another source defines the phrase “agony of the leaves” as:
When tea leaves are infused with hot water, they rapidly release the full flavor of the tea, including tannins and caffeine. The leaves expand and often twist and unwind during this process.
So, my online pal is a “glass half full” type, opting to see this action as the “joy of the leaves.” And that approach to tea can be very healthy psychologically speaking. After all, how do you in good conscience drink a liquid created as the result of some poor little tea leaves being put through agony? Of course, you could block the thought from your mind. But, better yet, you can imagine the joyful time those leaves are having, the gentle coaxing of the water to get them to open from their sometimes cocoon-like shapes, the water practically tickling them. In fact, if you listen real close, you can almost hear those tea leaves giggle!
Yes, giggle! Now, does that sound like agony to you? Didn’t think so.
Agony of the Leaves
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