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Hospitality As Spiritual Practice and an Epidemic of Loneliness
There’s an epidemic that’s swept across the modern world almost silently. And it has almost certainly spawned other epidemics in it’s wake. But it’s not the flu, or the bubonic plague. It’s not caused by a virus and antibiotics won’t treat it. It’s loneliness. Try Googling “loneliness” and you’ll be buried in an avalanche of articles. If you dig you’ll even begin to see research connecting how disconnected and lonely we are to the opioid epidemic and other forms of addiction. Which is why I want to talk about hospitality as spiritual practice, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
As “connected” as we supposedly are in the modern world it turns out we’re actually pretty isolated. True connection has been frequently replaced with the appearance of connection. Likes and comments don’t actually equate to the sort of connection that our brains and souls need. And as we become more mobile, more scattered, and busier the problem gets worse. My husband and I discovered this early on in our married life. We got married and started out in Austin Texas. We both had strong communities, mine through my graduate program, him through over ten years of building friendships.
And then I graduated, my classmates all scattered across the US, and we also moved 90 miles away. Suddenly we were in a strange town where we knew no one. It was lonely as hell. Sure we were “connected” to our far flung friends by Facebook and email, but it wasn’t the same. And then we started a monthly dinner party. It started small, a coworker and friend joined us for dinner one night. The next month we invited folks from the next town over. And then we were getting together for a meal the 3rd Friday of every month.
Vulnerability As Antidote
Here’s the thing about dinner parties that happen every month on the same day. They don’t give a rat’s patoot about your schedule. There were months when we had lots of time to prepare. There were months I’d been at the hospital all day with someone who was dying and there was still dog hair rolling around under the table and dirty dishes in the sink. And we learned that none of that mattered. The food we cooked didn’t matter, the state of the house (messy or neat) didn’t matter. What mattered were the people. Though maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the dirty house really did matter because it was real. When we all dropped into our chairs at the end of a harrowing week and raised our glasses of boxed wine over pizza we were real. Our friends saw us as we were, not as we wanted to present ourselves.
It was the opposite of the polished images so many of us project on social media. Why yes, our elderly dog did just have an accident a few minutes before you showed up. Yes, I did just get so involved in your story I burned dinner. No I haven’t put on makeup yet today but I am so glad y’all are here! Those friends became family thousands of miles from our own. They cured our loneliness, and we theirs. We opened up our lives and they made themselves comfortable in the midst of the mess. And that made all the difference.
The only way to build real life changing connection is vulnerability.
Hospitality As Spiritual Practice
To be vulnerable you first have to be relatively safe. Not completely safe obviously or you wouldn’t be vulnerable. (I know, I know.) Imagine it this way. There’s a huge difference between jumping out of an airplane with a parachute than without one. No one should be jumping out of a perfectly good plane without a parachute on. But, if you have a parachute then jumping out of a plane becomes an option, maybe not a great one (in my opinion) but it’s an option. Vulnerability is sort of like that.
In order to be vulnerable in a healthy way you first have to have some vaguely safe space. Putting up with abuse isn’t being vulnerable, it’s just plain unhealthy. That doesn’t mean you won’t take risks, life is about risk, but take wise risks. In the context of this discussion what we’ll be chiefly concerned with is how you create safe space for others to be vulnerable. Hospitality is at it’s core about creating safe space. The word has been coopted by the Martha Stewart sorts. But hospitality in it’s original form had nothing to do with place settings or decor. It was about literally being a safe haven for travelers. In the ancient world you survived because of the support of your community. To be traveling meant to be outside your community, outside of your support system and therefore incredibly vulnerable.
When someone practiced hospitality in the ancient world they took vulnerable people in out of the cold and enfolded them in their community of protection. It was literally about taking someone who was isolated and alone into your community. They were deeply vulnerable, and you created safe space for them in the time they were with you.
And that is our goal when practicing hospitality as a spiritual practice.
Let Go of Perfection
So how do you do it, how do you create a safe space for people that in turn can build community, combat loneliness, and change your life and theirs? The very first step is incredibly simple and incredibly difficult: let go of perfection. Or said another way: let go of pretending you are perfect. How many of you as children remember you parents rushing around in a frenzy cleaning the house, hiding the clutter, scrubbing the dirt off your face and stuffing you into the dress up clothes you hated to wear. If you do it was probably because there were guests coming over. It might be the only time the house looked tidy and perfect, but damnit we did it. Or maybe your relatives had the living room encased in plastic to keep it pristine for guests?
I distinctly remember going over to many people’s houses and them apologizing for what a mess things were. I would look around at the absolutely pristine house and feel totally inadequate. It made me never want to have anyone over to my house. That sort of quest to present perfection to others shuts down connection. My reaction isn’t unique. When we try to pretend we’re perfect we signal to our guests that their own messy lives aren’t good enough. They too have to play the perfection game, we tell them (without saying it) that they had better pretend along with us.
Let it go.
You aren’t perfect, and neither is anyone you will ever invite into your house. Here’s my barometer for a second invite. If you come into my totally lived in and imperfect house and are critical of it’s honesty you likely won’t get invited a second time. If I sort of see you relax and heave an inward sign of relief, you’re my people, you’ll always be welcome.
The Love Language of Welcome
In some cultures, saying “I love you” is common and expected. In others loving acts are meant to speak the same thing without words. Welcome is perhaps one of the most powerful ways we have of saying I love you. It requires you to be vulnerable. Inviting someone into your life and your home involves risk. They could reject you outright, they might accept but behave inappropriately. You might let them into your safe space and discover they’re judgmental and critical. Do it anyway.
Do it wisely, don’t invite the mansplainer at work who never has anything good to say. But do invite that acquaintance you find fascinating and would like to know more, the neighbors who were warm and welcoming when you moved in, the new couple down the street who don’t seem to know anyone. Take a chance on new people, and take a chance with your old friends. The ones you love and adore but maybe aren’t sure they really love you, the ones who are always there for you, the folks you’ve lost touch with. Invite them all over and do it not because you want to show off your new floors, but because you want to show them love and care.
Love after all isn’t a feeling, no matter what we’ve been taught. Love is action, it’s a verb. Love is a choice we make to go one way and not another. Every moment of the day I am given the choice to chose love and hospitality: the act of making people feel welcome, accepted, safe, and feeding them (caring for their most basic need) is love lived out.
Tips, Tricks, and the Balance4Life Tool
My beloved and I have been hosting monthly dinners for almost six years now (how did that happen?) And we’ve learned a few things about hospitality. Obviously what works for you might be a little different than what works for us, but the basic practices will be the same.
Here are tips and tricks we’ve picked up over the last six years to make your attempt at hospitality as a spiritual practice a little easier and smoother, after all there’s no reason to repeat the same mistakes we did!
Tips & Tricks
- Keep it simple. No need to do a five course meal, no need for fancy decor. Food and folk are all that’s required.
- Start small. Do not start by inviting 15 people over to your apartment for heaven sake! Invite one person over and order pizza. Then try three. Stay there a while, see how it goes.
- Potluck it. There’s nothing wrong with asking folks to contribute what they can. A bottle of wine, a pie, a bag of chips. It’s all fine and it gives them a chance to be part of the act of caring for one another.
- Ask about food allergies when you invite folks, even the people you’ve known for years and are sure you know all their issues.
- “Snacky dinner” is one of our favorite go tos for gatherings. Everyone brings something, nothing needs cooking, we all end up full. (Chips, dips, veggies, fruit, nuts, finger foods galore!)
- Try not to over prepare. I absolutely wipe the cat hair off the dining room table before our guests arrive (we gave up trying to keep the cat off it years ago), but I do not spend all day cleaning. Sanitary is all that’s required, remember you’re being real.
- Make something you are super comfortable preparing. If you’re normal dinner routine is to order pizza don’t plan a full complicated menu for your guests. You’ll just end up stressed and distracted and not only won’t you have any fun but you won’t actually connect with the people you’ve invited over. Remember what this is about: the relationships you are building, not the food!
- Play to everyone’s strengths. After a number of years with our same group we know that Nancy makes a really good avacado salad, and JC is a flipping pastry chef. So if JC is coming over we don’t bother making dessert and if Nancy is coming we know that salad is handled. (Everyone else has their thing too, you know who you are.)
- Make food ahead of time or take advantage of crock pot recipes to reduce your stress and workload.
- Go with the flow: have a nice evening planned around a candlelit table but everyone’s having too much fun hanging out in the kitchen? Relax, let it happen, and hand around the plates.
- Don’t clean up until everyone has left. That’s right, leave the table heaped with dishes, and the counter covered in the mess of cooking. Cleaning up will signal to your guests its time for them to go, and it will take you away from them which is totally contrary to the point of gathering!
- Unless of course you’re group are the sort to descend on the kitchen together for both the cooking and cleanup parts of the evening. In which case hand over the dish rag and have fun.
- Don’t be afraid to enforce boundaries. This one might be uncomfortable, but part of creating a safe space is setting healthy boundaries that protect you and all your guests. It might be hard to call out a friend who just made an inappropriate joke but what is worse is when you don’t and someone you care about no longer feels safe in your group. Have the hard conversations and let everyone get a little more real and aware of one another.
- Enjoy one another. After all, that’s what this is about and maybe what all of life is about.
The Bottom Line
In the end hospitality as a spiritual practice is about acting with intention out of love. Do dinner together, or invite neighborhood parents over for coffee and a play date. Hospitality has a thousand different shapes. What unites it is the desire to connect with another human being, to build community together, and to love one another.
The key for me has been consistency, being reminded regularly to set aside time for those I care about instead of letting my calendar fill up with meetings and tasks that are clamoring for my attention. If you would like such help I invite you to download the Balace4Life tool I created for myself last year. It’s free, it’s customizable, and it is meant to help you put the people you care about back at the center of your life.