A posture of hospitality

What a difference personal understanding makes.

This time of the year, my wife and I are usually planning Christmas festivities. We've been together long enough that we don't feel the need to visit family each year. So we've carved out our own holiday rhythm of inviting friends over for a big Christmas Eve dinner on our back deck, and a smaller get together on Christmas Day, often with friends who don't have anywhere else to be. This year, with a pandemic still raging fiercer each day, those traditions have been placed on pause, giving me a moment to consider the importance of hospitality.

The thing is, when I say hospitality, we immediately think of hotels or the food and beverage professions. I love these industries. The thing I miss the most from "the before times" is going to a favorite restaurant, sitting at the bar, and having a conversation with our favorite servers. When I traveled to San Diego for the better first half a year, one hotel I stayed at had put a name with my face after a few stays. For me, the unearned respect that flows from hospitality professionals is inspiring.

I think deep down, that's what we all crave as people. We want to be seen, we want to be acknowledged, and we hope to be cared for, even just a little bit. I've tried to build these basic needs into how Bravery Media approaches its digital work in higher education. And I've found when we just reorient ourselves a little bit, we start to see things differently.

One of my favorite essays by C.S. Lewis gets to this. In "Meditation in a Toolshed" (The Coventry Evening Telegraph. July 17, 1945), Lewis is in a dark toolshed with a beam of sunlight shining through the door. There in the dark, he can see the beam, dust floating around in it. He then takes a step to his side to look along the shaft of light. It disappears, and he's suddenly looking through the crack in the door at a world flooded with sunlight. The entirety of the outdoors is there, just one step to the side.

I've loved this essay for almost 20 years and yet still find myself doing these things. When we're focused on what we want to order for dinner, do we remember that our favorite restaurant servers are struggling, perhaps even harder than we are? When we're building websites, are we focused on how nice it looks at the expense of how quickly it'll load for someone in a rural area with a slow Internet connection? When we pay a lot of money for a new LMS, are we thinking about how our students learn or about our business efficiencies?

This is the difference between looking at and looking along. In most cases, there are multiple ways to interpret a problem and solve it. But so often, our solutions don't start with the very people affected. Or if they do, we're on autopilot, letting our years of experience convince us that we already know what our friends, service staff, bartenders, retail workers, support staff, call center folks, and students need. We're looking at a problem, we're looking at the people affected, but until we take a step back from ourselves and step toward them to listen, we won't truly understand how to help them.

Deep down, we just want to be respected by others. We want our time respected; we want our intelligence acknowledged. Our customers, community members, students, alumni... they all want the same thing. What would happen if we start with our audience members' needs and build our strategies around those needs?

The more I think about higher education in the context of hospitality, the more I am convinced a posture of unearned respect and proactive care in institutional practice could change everything. 

Some smaller institutions do parts of this well already. The small colleges where faculty can host students in their homes for meals during the term are a great example. And the best instructors are the ones who care about their students, their outcomes, and how best they learn. Hospitality and education go hand-in-hand if we just take one step to the side and look at it a bit differently.

This Christmas will be different for my wife and me, but I've realized that that hospitable side of me has to find a way out. If it isn't through hosting friends and strangers for dinner, it's through baking bread for someone. If it isn't through meeting up for a beer, it comes out through random check-ins. And apparently, it manifests itself in how I think about the world. 


Epilogue: I spent a long time thinking through this topic, writing and rewriting this post. My last post resonated with so many folks, I just wanted to expand on this idea of hospitality as a life practice. But I want to leave with one final thought.

One of the faith groups that we belonged to here in Austin for quite a while helped me re-orientate how I think about this topic, faith, and relationships. The quote is, “all people are inherently loveable and loved.” It’s a hard truth to internalize sometimes, but it’s profound in its simplicity. Whether you have a spiritual practice or not, I hope it resonates. This idea is the basis of social justice, societal contracts, and often the start of self-healing and forgiveness. When we can recognize that every person deserves kindness and respect as a default, simply because they share time and space with us, lots of things look different.

This is particularly hard in a politically vitriolic culture war. And I catch myself not living up to that ideal. But I’m going to keep at it, training myself to remember to leave space for other people, simply because they are here.

-JGG