* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, April 25, 2016

Community and Hospitality

When we cross the threshold of vulnerability and allow another person to know us more deeply, we are conveying a certain amount of trust that the other person will treat that knowledge with some respect. If they were to use what they know about us to hurt us, it would be more difficult for us to feel safe in community with that person. This is one reason mutual self-disclosure is important -- so that there isn't a power differential where one side is entrusted with information without having to risk the same level of vulnerability.

Self-disclosure actually meets a need, though. We don't just reveal our true selves to people for the sake of building trust and realizing our capacity for vulnerability. We want and need to be known by others, even as we fear that we are unacceptable, unlovable, or unworthy of being known. Mutual self-disclosure directly confronts the fears that we have about ourselves by giving us a chance to be loved and accepted for who we really are, in community with other people who wrestle with their own fears and challenges.

How we respond to knowing others and being known by others matters a great deal. We are best able to create meaningful, authentic community when our response to knowing others and being known by others leads toward greater wholeness. One way a community creates wholeness is by mutual service toward one another. Another way of saying this is that a community creates wholeness through a culture of hospitality. When our response to knowing others more deeply is to seek ways to be of service to them, we create greater wholeness in their lives and in our own. And when our response to others knowing us more deeply is to be open to how they want to be of service to us, we allow greater wholeness in our own lives, as well as theirs. In fact, if we care about creating a more just, equitable, compassionate world, we want our lives to be about hospitality and service. Community can provide a space for us to practice being the kind of people we want to be in the world.

Different people have different challenges with the idea of mutual hospitality. It's probably helpful to start by defining what we mean by service in this context. Keep in mind that we are talking about an environment of mutual self-disclosure, so we're assuming a community in which people are not trying to take advantage of one another, but are aiming for authenticity. Manipulating or persuading others is an anxious behavior. So is trying to fix or control other people, even if it's "for their own good." We'll see in a couple of weeks that honesty is another key component to healthy community. For now, it suffices to be clear that we're talking about an environment where people are striving for intentional relationships and not anxiety-driven relationships, and we're assuming that people are learning to hold one another accountable to that aim.

Like self-disclosure, hospitality contributes to meaningful, authentic community when it's a mutual thing. When service is lopsided in a community or in a relationship, it causes problems. One person's needs in a community are not more important than another person's, even though there may be times when one person has more urgent needs than the other. Being of service to another person doesn't mean fixing their problems or telling them what they should do. And allowing another person to be of service to you doesn't mean you give up personal responsibility for your own behavior and decisions. Instead, hospitality is about caring for another person's well-being without compromising your own -- making choices to be compassionate rather than taking care of an issue out of anxiety.

Mutual hospitality in a community means that we can confidently care for others while trusting that other people will care for our well-being too. This may be simple acts of kindness that cost us very little, like getting someone another cup of coffee, throwing someone's trash away for them, or opening a door for somebody. These are little acts of hospitality that can become part of a community's culture. When everyone is committed to modeling kindness, it can help create a less anxious environment.

Hospitality may require more of us, though. Caring for another's well-being may mean addressing bigger issues, like a home flooding or a job disappearing or the death of a loved one. We can't just solve a problem in many of these cases, and that may leave us feeling helpless. Being of service doesn't require us to fix everything, though. We can make sure people know that they're welcome and we can listen with caring ears. We can help people formulate a plan of action and we can support them as they move forward by encouraging them and checking in on their progress, and even holding them accountable to the things they've said they'll do.

If we listen to a person's needs, we may also be willing to address some of those needs, but it isn't our obligation to do so. If a person needs a place to stay while their home is repaired, hospitality doesn't demand of us more than we can do. We don't need to cash in a retirement fund to pay a person's rent, and we don't need to move out of our little apartment so that they can have a place to stay. Compromising our own well-being out of a sense of obligation is not hospitality -- it's over-functioning. If we have the space in our home to take in someone else, and we choose to accept that inconvenience because we care about another person's well-being, we might offer that gift. Maybe it would be more useful to help that individual think through other people they could reach out to, or maybe we have other connections that we can offer, without taking on the responsibility of working out all the details. Helping people have personal responsibility to the greatest extent that they can is being of service.

Of course, in some religious communities, it's common to hear easy and unhelpful responses when people are vulnerable and express their real needs. Solutions like prayer or trusting a god to work everything out may keep people from being hospitable beyond their comfort zone, but they do little for the person in need. When someone's hungry, offering to pray for them to be well-nourished is no better than offering them a stone. When someone has lost their job, recommending they trust God to provide for them is just useless. True service to another person has a meaningful positive influence, it doesn't just offer an easy fix or an emotional narcotic.

Allowing a person to feel grief without trying to fix it or cheer them up can be hospitality. Listening to a person's anger at getting laid off without feeling obligated to solve their employment challenge can be hospitality. Walking beside someone on their journey without trying to tell them where they ought to go can be hospitality. Sometimes we can help people be clear about their own values and figure out their next steps in alignment with those values, but we don't have to figure out those steps for them. Hospitality is about providing what we are willing to provide to contribute to wholeness in someone else's life. Sometimes, that does mean opening our homes to people who need a place to stay, or spending the day preparing and serving food to people who are hungry. When we choose those actions out of our own values (rather than a sense of obligation), we are better able to create meaningful, authentic community.

There are two sides to mutual hospitality: serving and being served. Some people are more comfortable with one side than the other. Sometimes we are more willing to let our own needs go unaddressed because we believe that another person's needs are more important. Or because we believe that we just matter less. Or because we believe that we should feel shame about our needs. Or any number of other false beliefs. Sometimes we are more willing to let other people provide for us because we believe we deserve it. Or because we believe we're the helpless, powerless victims of our stories. Or because we believe we don't have anything to offer. Or any number of other false beliefs. Whichever side of that mutuality presents the greater challenge for us, we're going to have to do some work if we want it to change. We have to be intentional about our growth if it matters to us.

Hopefully, it's obvious how important mutual self-disclosure is to mutual hospitality. We can't care for one another well if we don't know one another, and we can't be cared for well if others don't know us. We have to show something of our true needs if we want those needs to be addressed. In the context of hospitality, it's also important to set clear boundaries, but this topic is worthy of a fuller discussion. Before we charge down that rabbit trail, we should take a look at another ingredient of meaningful, authentic community that undergirds both mutual self-disclosure and mutual hospitality: active and unconditional love.

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