- Joan Chittister in A Monastery Almanac tells us that, “Hospitality is not kindness.” Rather, she says it is being open to the unknown, trusting the things that frighten us and extending ourselves to the unfamiliar. It is a merging of unlikes.
- Kathleen Norris in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography writes about life in a small town in South Dakota and in many rural communities in the Dakotas, on the plains, and in monasteries. She believes that country people, like poets and monks can be thought of in the way Jean Cocteau suggests that poetry is “useless but indispensable.”
- Lynne McTaggart in her book The Bond: reports that we are hard-wired to cooperate, that theories about the survival of species through competition i.e., survival of the fittest, have proven to be wrong. Enormous amounts of research show us how much we need each other. In fact, without a sense of community and belonging our health suffers and we are much more susceptible to debilitating disease and death. More than all other risk factors such as obesity, poor diet, high cholesterol, smoking, overly stressful life styles - all of these have far less to do with our health and longevity than the connections we have with one another.
Hospitality is a need so deep that without it we would die. It may not seem that way in places that offer many opportunities for employment, entertainment, education, recreation and more. There is an abundance of everything. Here in the Pacific Northwest many people believe that there is enough of all that’s needed to sustain life, no matter what problems global warming, economic downturns, and overpopulation may create. There is enough rainfall and snow that we will never run short of water. Enough farm land to feed a family or a community lavishly. A climate that allows for foods to grow year round. It never gets so hot that plants are scorched and dry up, or cattle starve because of meager grass or a few months later, a sudden blizzard buries them in snow. Here streams and rivers run full with fish, oceans nearby teem with food for all of us. Where all of our material needs are easily met, it is often possible to live independent, satisfying lives with little thought given to the rigors of survival in other places. It’s easier to forget how much we need others when life has a steady beat and is full with resources and activity.
In contrast, on the high plains where I spent most of my adult years, the fragility of life makes it that much more precious. There is not an overabundance of everything. Seasons of plenty are short. Crops barely begin producing before a hail storm comes to beat them to the ground, even killing small animals who can find no shelter. Winds swirl away scant topsoil along with grains as they are cut and harvested. A hard freeze in early September can stop tomatoes on the vine. Winter whiteouts mean no travel and never leave your vehicle if you’re suddenly caught in a howling blizzard. Winter survival kits stay in the trunk year round; the shovel and blankets may be called on when lightning sparks a blaze in the forest or when the car high centers on a country road turned to gumbo. The nearest town with a hospital, a motel, or a grocery store may be 3 or 4 hours away. Cell phone service is not universal.
These extremes on the plains foster a most essential hospitality. When your car slides into a ditch on an empty stretch of icy road, you can count on someone stopping to pull you out. They will refuse any payment, trusting you to extend help to someone else when the need arises. When the shelves of the grocery store run low in anticipation of a storm, neighbors make soup and bake fresh bread and share with one another. Everyone knows the elder shut-ins, the sick and lonely, and the struggling family. Baked goods or hot dishes mysteriously appear at the front door, the walk is shoveled, mail is brought in. On the plains where there is not enough of everything that is in abundance in the city, still there is enough. The shyness, the reticence, the isolation of people in rural areas and small towns thinly covers deep wells of hospitality ready to be primed, to flow to the need of a neighbor or a stranger. Life on the wind swept plains depends on it.
One’s own generosity is sparked to respond in like manner when one has been the recipient of the selfless gift of another. We are all like children coming home to warmth and peace. Words may be sparse among country folk or on the plains but we are loved through actions. Once we have been encircled by this degree of caring, it is hard to live without it. We know what’s missing in places where there is enough of everything that appears to be important to the eyes of the world. Where there is enough to live very well and independently, there may be little that draws people together in interdependence. Ultimately we are all called upon to create our own community – wherever we may live - for without it the very quality and the length of our lives is diminished. Our souls and then our bodies wither and die. We have enough. We are enough. We can do it. We must. We need each other that much!