The doorbell rang. I opened the door to find a young woman I hadn’t seen in a long time. She was dropping off some cookies and a card for my wife and me. We visited for a couple minutes, then she went on her way.
If my wife had been home, she would have asked her in, made some coffee, and they would have talked for an hour or two.
But I am a lousy host. I tend to feel annoyed when people interrupt my plans for the day — even people I like, and even on those days when I am getting little done. It’s just something to do with having control over my time.
But making good use of one’s time is very different than controlling it. Nothing is a better use of one’s time than paying close attention to the world outside one’s head. And one of the best ways to do that is to practice hospitality, taking time to visit and be visited.
The word “visit” is one of those rare words that has changed very little from its origins; it still retains its Latin meaning of “to go see.” To visit a person or a place is to go and see for oneself, to spend time in the presence of another.
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It is a practice that has declined in recent years. As our nation has prospered, we have become more self-reliant, using cellphones and computers to mediate our interactions with one another. Gone are the days when a spontaneous visit was a commonplace way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
The upside to this is that we have much more control over how we use our time. The downside is that we spend less time in robust social interaction. People today tend to have fewer friends than previous generations did; we also spend much less time talking to strangers.
A recent survey by the Survey Center on American Life found that since 1990, the number of men reporting at least six close friendships declined from 55% to 27%. Today more than 20% of single men report having no close friends at all. The trend is similar, though less dramatic, for women.
The statistics on the growing rates of depression, anxiety, stress and loneliness among high school and college students is well-documented.
Anyone who spends much time with young people today will be familiar with the refrains: “Nobody is listening to me;” “I am not being heard;” “I feel like I am invisible;” “Why doesn’t anybody care?”
At times it can feel as if our society is caught in a downward spiral of social dysfunction, and we are desperate for solutions.
Our tendency is to blame “systems,” “structures,” or “institutions” for the diseases of loneliness and social isolation. Our young people are demanding more resources dedicated to counseling services, sensitivity training and wellness programs. In the short-term, those things are certainly needed, but they are not long-term solutions. We cannot effectively address the symptoms of deep-seated cultural change through political fixes. Cultural problems require cultural solutions. We need to change the way we live.
Every traditional culture in the world endorses hospitality — the simple practice of welcoming the guest. As societies prosper, they tend to de-emphasize hospitality in favor of institutionalized social services, which more effectively deliver valued resources to those in need. But there are needs that go beyond food, shelter, healthcare and education. There is the need for belonging, for knowing and being known.
There is an indefinable depth and complexity to every individual life. That is the secret we discover when we love someone. Our deepest friendships are comprised of the ongoing discovery of new depths that go well beyond the surface. To know someone well is to appreciate the difference between who they really are and who they appear to be. The first step toward that appreciation is the act of hospitality.
The practice of hospitality acknowledges that our direct attempts to help others frequently are clumsy and ineffectual. But there is value in spending time generously with one another that goes beyond our immediate intentions.
One day I ran into a former student at a grocery store. He thanked me for helping him get through his first year of college. “I never would have stayed in school if it weren’t for you,” he said.
That surprised me. In truth, I didn’t remember him all that well, as he had just taken one class with me in his freshman year. So, I asked him what I had said to encourage him to stick with it. “Oh, it wasn’t anything you said. It’s just that you always offered me a cup of coffee when I stopped by your office,” he explained.
“Did you like my coffee that much?” I asked.
“Oh no,” he replied. “I don’t even like coffee. But my grandma always had a pot of coffee on her stove for guests, and when I was feeling really homesick, I would just come by your office, and it would make me feel better.”
We don’t always need to have the answers. We don’t even need to know what we are doing. Sometimes, the most important thing is simply being present for one another. And that begins with the simplest of steps, taking time for a visit.