A few years ago, my wife and I were eating lunch at a café when a precocious little girl of about 4 years old greeted us from a nearby table. As she chatted away happily, her mother interrupted: “Mary, didn’t I tell you not to talk to strangers?”
“Oh,” replied the girl, “they’re not strangers; they’re nice people!”
It is a sad commentary on our society that so many parents emphasize the harm strangers may cause but neglect to teach their children the blessings of the chance encounter, a lesson that is at the heart of hospitality.
In many countries around the world, the virtue of love (or charity) is demonstrated through acts of hospitality. Early Christians valued hospitality both because it expressed the love of others as beings created in the image of God and because it furthered development of all the other virtues. Hospitality, in short, was regarded as the form of the virtues: each of the virtues comes to fruition in the practice of hospitality.
Hospitality is traditionally understood as taking care of the needs of strangers, which in most cultures requires inviting the stranger into one’s home. In the United States today, we speak of the “hospitality industry” — principally hotels and restaurants — which, ironically, allow the needs of strangers to be met without actually entering into anyone’s home. A traveller may visit the local attractions, have dinner and stay the night, exchanging no more than a handful of words with residents of the city.
In wealthy societies, the needs of the stranger — the traveller, the homeless, the sick, the mentally ill, the disabled, and the elderly — are provided mainly by institutions. Wherever there are needs, there are professionals dedicated to meeting those needs. But this institutionalization of care, which is intended to make sure no one’s needs are left unmet, comes at a cost that is more than financial. It greatly diminishes the opportunities for hospitality among the general population.
Without the regular practice of hospitality, which requires outwardly directed actions of loving kindness, people begin to think that love is no more than private emotion. Love changes from gift (something done for the sake of others) to feeling (something one desires). Moreover, as soon as meeting people’s needs becomes a commercial transaction, those who cannot pay for their needs become a burden to society, and those who are required to pay taxes to meet the burden begin to feel resentment.
Over the past 50 years or so, as the traditional practice of hospitality has been replaced by publicly funded social services, the promotion of love as a virtue has been abandoned in favor of the less demanding public values of civility and tolerance. Thus, teachers and parents encourage children not to love their neighbors, but instead to “appreciate diversity” and “respect differences.” Such contemporary values are not unworthy, but they do no more than set minimal standards for social conduct.
Civility and tolerance express respect for people whose relationships to our own lives are distant and will likely remain so, but hospitality invites strangers into deeper relationship. While civility and tolerance respect other peoples’ beliefs, hospitality welcomes actual people into one’s life. If we tolerate one another, you can go your way and I can go mine; we simply agree not to harm one another. If we show hospitality to one another, we enter into genuine relationships. And genuine relationships are essential to a flourishing life.
What we really value in others is neither sameness nor difference but complementarity. We are born partial, and only in relationship with others do we discover wholeness. We need to practice hospitality, not because it is a more efficient way to meet the needs of others, but because loving service is itself a need.
If we really love our children, and wish them to have rich, meaningful lives, we should start them out on the right path by encouraging them to talk to strangers.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.