Showing Hospitality…to Yourself

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.

Published in: on December 19, 2013 at 10:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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In getting to know someone, we’re bound to hear bits and pieces of what made them who they are, and we start to piece it together to understand them. This is how relationships are formed. But it’s rare that we actually sit down and listen to someone’s life story as a whole. And it’s rare that we tell it, too. For one thing, we feel awkward telling people about ourselves without an invitation. For another, we’re not sure how it will be received. It’s deeply personal, and it makes us feel vulnerable, putting our entire lives out on the table for someone to scrutinize.

But I think sharing our stories with one another is a very healthy thing to do. Then we realize that none of us really has it together. We can better understand where the other is coming from. We can help each other recognize our own biases. We can learn from each other’s mistakes. And most importantly, we can accept one another for who we are. Not just the polished parts of our life, and not just what we’ve had control over. All of it. All of US.

I heard, like, 2 testimonies growing up. And it was more about the terrible lives they lived before they found Christ, and it seemed to be a way to admonish the younger folks not to make the same mistakes. Hence I developed a bit of “conversion envy” — feeling like I had nothing to share because I’ve always been the “good kid.” And because of that, it sort of blinded me to the incredible things that God has done in my life. So when I was asked to share my testimony during training week at Deer Run, I kind of panicked: “But…I don’t have a story!” As I put my notes together, though, thinking about the places and people that have influenced me, I came to realize that I did have a story. It may not be full of fireworks and awesomeness, but it’s a story that no one else has. It makes me uniquely me.

I’ve shared my story three times now. Not a super long and detailed version, never over 20 or 30 minutes’ worth. But each time, I think it provided a very healthy framework for establishing a relationship with other people. The first time I shared it was to a room full of 30 people, who became the most supportive team I have ever worked with.

The second time was on the concrete steps outside the bath house at Deer Run at 11:00 at night.  I was sitting outside journaling when one of the junior staffers came up and asked, “Um, now may not be the best time to ask you this, but…what is your story?”  I was kind of taken aback at the simplicity and sincerity with which he asked.  He was asking me to talk about…me!  So we shared our stories with each other, and we ended up developing a close friendship.  When he junior staffed with me a couple weeks after that, we worked well together because there wasn’t anything we couldn’t be super open and honest about.  Weeks later, when we parted ways, I may or may not have cried my eyes out.  Granted, a good deal of that was camp emotion; but it was more than that, too.  I wrote in my journal later that day that he had gotten through my defense mechanisms in a way that nobody else ever had, and now I see why.  It was that simple question: “What is your story?”  He didn’t want to know what I hoped to do with my life, or what I’m good at or what I could do for him.  He wanted to know me.

The third time was actually quite recently.  I walked into Starbucks to meet a classmate, wearing tacky thrift store jeans, a hoodie, no makeup, glasses, and my hair thrown up in a messy bun.  For a few minutes we worked on a class assignment together, and then I was like, “Hey, uh, can I hear your life story?”  So he shared it with me.  I’d heard snapshots of it that made me want to hear the whole thing, and hearing it gave me a renewed appreciation for where he has come from and how to understand him.  Then he asked me about mine, and we just spent time talking and asking questions and being real with each other about our lives.  He later told me that I had a beautiful story and that it was a privilege to hear it.  My story?  A privilege?  There was powerful affirmation in those words.  It seemed to convey that he wasn’t evaluating my looks or intelligence or potential — that maybe he saw something of value, not in any of those things, but in who I am.

I say all this to say that nothing builds community like openness, and nothing generates openness like a simple invitation to tell one’s story. If we as Christians are to be a community of people that live and love and work together, we need to dig a little deeper than surface-level talk. If we know each other on the story level, I think there would be a lot less judgment and a lot more understanding. That “annoying person” would become an understandable person. It would be a lot easier to cry with someone if we knew why they were crying. It would be easier to correct someone if you knew why they acted the way they did, and it would be a lot easier to accept correction if you knew you were understood.

So let’s get coffee sometime. I’d love to hear your story.

P.S. Paragraphs 5 & 6 were edited by my mother, the English major. This is why there are two spaces between each sentence and more commas than I usually use. “Being real about your lives? What does that even mean? That must be an extrovert thing.” Haha I love her.

Published in: on November 20, 2012 at 6:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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