When we hear or use the word hospitality, it conjures a pretty specific picture: (mostly married) women hosting dinner parties for friends and family and (mostly married) women bringing covered dishes (which is Southern-speak for food that makes delicious leftovers) to the homes of the sick or suffering.
We might get a broader picture when we invoke the phrase Southern hospitality.* This consists of everything from someone offering you a ride in their chicken truck to nearest PepBoys when your car breaks down (true story), to bumming a cigaret to a stranger; from holding the elevator without being asked, to insisting on water breaks for the movers you’re paying by the half-second.
These are all good examples of hospitality. The first examples happen mostly among friends and family, the latter between strangers. Both are vital to our development as… human beings.
But these expressions of hospitality are not usually part of our everyday comings and goings. They’re generally either extremely planned or extremely unplanned. And, sometimes what we primarily think of as hospitable acts lend themselves toward being extraverted acts.
Proposal: Hospitality is neither for certain sects of people—extraverts and women**—nor is hospitality a once in a while, or “merely polite,” venture. Hospitality, in it’s most essential form of expression, is ontological (don’t worry! this word will soon make more sense if it’s new to you now).
In other words, we are most hospitable when we make others feel at home in their own skin. You don’t have to own a home or a spacious apartment to do this. Nor do you have to smile at or speak to strangers. You simply have to let people be themselves.
Make being with you a safe place for people to be their true selves. How do we do this?
1. Stop being so judgy.
We all do this. Kicking this nasty habit requires being openminded and refusing to stereotype and categorize people: Fat people are lazy. Nice people are fake. Muslims hate women. Stop. Stop. Stop. People are complex. Get to know someone as the individual he or she is. When we take time to get to know someone, we invariably come to know their hopes and passions and insecurities, which are deeply human, and allow us to connect on a deeply human level.
1b. Let go of what annoys you.
This is not always possible. But sometimes it is and we need to realize that what annoys us is just not that important and we need to get over ourselves. For example, I often find folks who exhibit a general disregard for rules, especially for illogical reasons like “having fun” and “socializing,” annoying. Sometimes disregard for rules can be a type of thoughtlessness toward others that really is uncool. But sometimes it’s just not that big a deal and I just need to get over myself and my–and this is the key word here–preferences.
2. Keep calm and… you know the rest.
Don’t freak out. This is especially important when someone shares an insecurity or a mistake or a life choice you don’t approve of (see 1b), or a life choice that really is unhealthy and harmful to his or her true self.
When someone confides in you, be rational while also being emotionally available. In other words, don’t freak out and make emotional contact: eye contact, a hand on the shoulder, a gentle word. Make the kind of contact that communicates love and respect, even if also disappointment; make the kind of contact that says, ‘You’re valuable. And I care about you. No matter what you’ve done.’
Yes, ontological hospitality is really just being the grownup friend to the teenager inside us all.
3. Encourage the true self.
This is the biggest part of being hospitable. All the other things we’ve talked about so far fit into the framework of encouraging others’ true selves. What I’m calling the true self can be understood as one’s better self, or in Christian-speak, the imago dei. Encouraging someone’s better self takes form in two ways.
Firstly, we encourage someone’s better self by believing it exists even when we can’t see it. We do this by seeing his potential beyond his failings. We do it by recognizing her hurtful words and actions as the masks of the false selves, the lesser selves.
Secondly, we show ontological hospitality by drawing out and nurturing the parts of that person she or he has buried because some social structure–family, church, the workplace, society at large–has told her it’s abnormal or unacceptable, told him it’s weird or wrong. Don’t cry, men are supposed to be strong. Don’t speak your mind, women are supposed to be nice.
As Christians we believe (or we’re supposed to believe) that all people are made in the image of God (cue the above Latin), and as such, uniquely reflect God to others. This means we need one another to see God and to gain perspective about ourselves and the world in which we live.
But the world is not a safe place for these unique selves because unique is unpredictable, unmanageable, and unknown. And so we create false selves. Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite writers, describes this hiding of ourselves best:
[T]he world sets in to making us what the world would like us to be, and because we have to survive after all, we try to make ourselves into something that we hope the world will like better than it apparently did the selves we originally were. That is the story of all our lives, needless to say, and in the process of living out that story, the original, shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us hardly end up living out of it at all. Instead, we live out all the other selves which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather. (Telling Secrets 45)
Whether you believe in God or not, we all know the world is not a safe place to be yourself. Ontological hospitality is being a shelter for the self that’s been battered by the world’s storm. For those who believe God is a shelter and has a plan to restore everything to its true self, being a refuge for someone’s “original shimmering self” is our part in that plan.
*I’m sure them d*mned yankees (bless their hearts) are hospitable too… in their own cold way. —No yankees were harmed during the making of this blog post. I <3 NY—
**Cuz let’s be honest, you probably hadn’t considered anything in the Southern hospitality list as hospitality, except offering your movers water. We associate hospitality with the home; we associate the home with women. When men are hospitable toward women it’s chivalry, and when dudes are hospitable toward other dudes, it’s… we don’t even have a word for it. But we don’t need a special word for it. It’s hospitality. It isn’t just for women.
(Editor) holds an MLA in Literature and an MA in African American literature and history. Prior to starting her current work, Renea spent a year studying at the famous L'Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, where she, in addition to studying theology, read the Harry Potter saga for the first time and fell in love with the characters and the story's triumph of sacrificial love. Renea takes great pleasure in leading a very talented creative writing group and swing dancing at the historic Sons of Hermann Hall.