An Epidemic of Loneliness
Almost silently, an epidemic has swept across the modern world. It has spawned other epidemics in its 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 is 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 how the spiritual practice of hospitality can transform our lives and our communities, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
As “connected” as we supposedly are in the modern world it turns out we’re actually quite isolated. True connection has frequently been replaced with the appearance of connection. Likes and comments on social media don’t equate to the sort of connection that we need to thrive. 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 all across the US, and we moved 90 miles away to Waco Texas. 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 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 Treats Loneliness
Here’s the thing about dinner parties that happen every month on the same day. They don’t give a rat’s arse 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.
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 was that we were together. But maybe in a funny way the dirty dishes and dog hair did matter. It mattered 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 delivery pizza we were real. Our friends saw us as we were, not as we wanted to present ourselves. And that gave them permission to do the same.
It was the opposite of the polished images so many of us project on social media. Why yes, our elderly dog did just poop on the floor minutes before you showed up (or in the middle of dinner). Yes, I did just get so involved in your story I burned the food. 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 this sort of honest vulnerability. (And here’s a guide for how to build that vulnerability.)
Hospitality As Spiritual Practice
To be vulnerable you first have to be relatively safe. Not completely safe 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 or without a parachute. No one should be jumping out of a plane without a parachute. But, if you have a parachute then jumping out of a plane becomes 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 Pinterest crowd, but hospitality in it’s original form had nothing to do with place settings or decor. Hospitality means to literally provide 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 so that together you can build community, combat loneliness, and change all your lives? 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.
Do you remember (as a child) the adults in your house 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 every time guests were coming? 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 being a guest and our hosts apologizing for what a mess things were. I would look around at the absolutely pristine house and feel totally inadequate (because if this was a mess, my house was a disaster). It made me never want to have anyone over to my house. The 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. It forces everyone to play the perfection game.
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.
Welcome As Love Language
In some cultures, saying “I love you” is common and expected. In other cultures loving acts are meant to say “I love you” 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 are 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, 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
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 principles remain 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 avocado 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. It’s not about being “politically correct,” it’s about being respectful adult human beings!
- 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.
And if you want to go deeper and explore how to integrate your daily life with your spiritual practice check out my new book: It’s All Sacred (for sale here). In it I explore the practical, yet radical ways of reshaping our life and spirituality for personal growth, and a better community and world.