There are seasons of my life in which God teaches me through repetition. This semester, it seemed that every experience, every casual conversation, every class period, indeed every moment, somehow tied into the larger theme of hospitality. From reading Henri Nouwen, to struggling through the awkwardness of hospice visits and learning to be comfortable in discomfort, to receiving the hospitality of others, I have thought and journaled enough about the idea to write a little book on it. Maybe I will one day. But until then, the blog will suffice.
So if I could sum up in a single sentence what I have learned about hospitality, it would be this: Hospitality is an attitude of the heart.
Until we have peace within ourselves which we can extend to others, hospitality is merely a matter of going through the motions – and recipients of this “hospitality” can often sense its shallowness. This is not to say that those who extend this sort of hospitality are insincere in their intentions. Rather, because hospitality by its very nature welcomes, affirms, and eases discomfort, anything less seems forced and awkward. To make others feel at ease, we must cultivate an atmosphere of peace and create an environment in which others feel free to be themselves.
Yet we cannot accomplish this until we are comfortable with who we are and experience peace within ourselves. Thus, the first person to whom we must show hospitality is ourselves.
A while back, I had an eye-opening experience in which I learned to offer grace and show hospitality to myself. I was among a small group of fellow theology majors, and one of my classmates led us through a self-examining meditation. In our imagination, we were to picture a five-year-old child coming to us and sitting on our lap – a five-year-old version of ourselves. What do you say to the child? She gives you a gift – what is it?
My imagination wasn’t working, and I inexplicably became frustrated, even angry. What stupid, cheesy gift would five-year-old me give me? “Heck if I know,” I thought. “This is dumb.”
Yet as another of my classmates shared through her tears how she just wanted to let the little girl know how beautiful she was, it illuminated some very deep feelings inside me.
The reason I couldn’t picture the little girl was because she repulsed me. I didn’t want her there ruining my hard-earned awesomeness with her five-year-old awkwardness that I had tried so hard to put away and forget about. I was ashamed of her and didn’t want to be seen with her. I was angry at her for not being athletic, for not being fashionable, for not being perfect. Forget telling her she’s beautiful — I wanted to shake her by the shoulders and scream at her to get with the program because she had made my life difficult.
A lifetime of built-up resentment came out in a startling, choking sob as I realized that this criticism is something I have always done to myself, as I punish my past self and try to live up to expectations of my tyrannical future self.
For most of my life, these deep underlying insecurities have prevented me from creating a hospitable environment. Acutely aware of my own insufficiencies and punishing myself for every awkward moment, I have fought against them rather than accepting them as a part of me and working with them.
When we as hosts feel tension inside ourselves, some intangible quality of discomfort is keenly felt by all. In addition to creating a negative atmosphere, insecurity with ourselves is self-centered rather than others-centered. When we worry more about how we come across, rather than making our guests feel comfortable, we are neglecting the very core of hospitality.
In the days after the meditation, as I overcame my reactionary pain, I knew what I had to say to my five-year-old self.
I had to tell her I was sorry for the guilt and the blame I had put on her, and the pressure to be perfect that I would never put on anyone else.
But it took me a little longer to recognize the gift she gave me.
My dad has always loved to tell the story of how I, as a little girl with a pure and generous heart, would offer to give away my last piece of candy. That little girl hugged and kissed everyone, even strangers, and wanted to be best friends with everybody – probably even a bitter 21-year-old.
She would accept me, even as I rejected her. The gift that 5-year-old me gave me was one I had never had the courtesy to offer her.
She gave me the gift of hospitality.