Hospitality and Conversation

How do we make space for hospitality in the present day? Is it still relevant? Does hospitality matter? Recently, I picked up a slim book by Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, a collection of sayings by the 4th Century Desert Fathers. These men and women, yes, there were Desert Mothers as well, left society because “they did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state, and who believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values.”

Those choosing the desert life did not ruminate over the esoteric, the lofty, or the theoretical, but chose that life to participate in their relationship with Christ on a most fundamental level: loving one’s neighbor. The desert inhabitants lived out Christ’s command in one particular way, hospitality.

Hospitality is the act of inviting someone in, making them feel welcome, putting one’s guest at ease. Shedding the trappings of society implies having little in the way of material goods to offer one’s guests – food, wine, a place to rest. But it does allow the host to focus in on the needs of the guest and in this age, the age of technical connection and human isolation, I can appreciate both the making and receiving of such an offering.

After I left sales, I had no interest in conversation. Years of producing a smile and on the spot small-talk every time a customer came into view left me empty of any generosity. Conversations in sales exceeded exhaustion because they were entirely one-sided. In the end, conversation traded authentic exchange for rote transaction.

I arrived at school in 2010 with nothing to give, but more in need. Most of my classmates struggled with verbal pleasantries. Not only was I in school with engineers who could not visit to save their lives, I went on a series of first dates with men who sat across from me, stupefied. I resented having to do the heavy lifting in conversation, the tedium of trying to engagingly draw someone out while waiting for drinks to arrive, then dinner, then dessert, then the ride home only to receive one word answers or shrugs.

So I retreated. I cloistered myself away with my books, my studies, my research. I gave one word answers. I did not shrug, however, because I abhor apathy. I do not do tepid. Over months, then years, I started to feel better. I smiled more and meant it. Of my colleagues, I asked how the day looked — and I genuinely wanted to know.

After spending time at both ends — the artifice of forced, relentless small-talk and the lonely, hidden isolation of no-talk — I settled in somewhere in the middle.

With little to offer, other than a cup of coffee, I can invite someone in to conversation. There will be those who exercise laziness and refuse hospitality, allowing their partner to do the heavy lifting, but that is their problem. Their loss.

I originally went into sales because I enjoy meeting people, helping to solve problems. I like to know a person’s stories, their perceptions, their reading lists. Once again I am surrounded by people who struggle with the giving and receiving of conversation, but now I understand myself better — I prefer to be in conversation. The blessing is in the exchange.

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