The little things that can change us

By Alex Penk November 20, 2018

Last weekend, my daughter was shrieking in my ear with a mixture of delight and fear as we skimmed across a lake behind a jetski. We were at a dads and daughters weekend, where we spent a lot of time on the lake making some pretty special memories. We’re not a boating family, so we could only share this experience because others chose to be generous with what they have. It got me thinking about the power of hospitality, not just in that weekend, but as a way to really transform our society.

At its best, hospitality is a kind of public virtue, an attitude and a practice that changes the way we treat other people. We all know how to show hospitality to our friends, but it’s harder to be hospitable to people we don’t know and who are quite different to us, or when it’s going to cost us something. But it’s in those times that hospitality has the most power.

The heart of hospitality is making space for other people, including strangers

Luke Bretherton, a professor at Duke University, says the heart of hospitality is making space for other people, including strangers. There have to be limits to our hospitality—most of us couldn’t host people for dinner every night—but he says they should promote a sustainable commitment to making space for others. It’s what I experienced on a marae last year as a student of te reo Māori, when the tangata whenua graciously and patiently welcomed us into their world.

When you receive this kind of hospitality, it awakens a desire to treat others with the same generosity that you were treated, and that’s why it can be transformative. Of course, it won’t solve all our problems. For example, it isn’t going to make conflict go away. But making space for people who have different ideas and beliefs can promote healthier conflict in our local and national community spaces.

And then there’s the everyday, individual level where we have the most opportunities to practise hospitality to the strangers around us. When my children were younger, there were times when I was “that” parent with the screaming child in the checkout line. There were always some people whose faces made it clear they would prefer my child and I didn’t exist, that we didn’t disrupt their precious shopping experience. But then there were those who showed us hospitality, whose expressions signalled their empathy and their encouragement, and that made all the difference to a tired dad just doing his best.

The ripple effect of these kinds of public virtues is the very thing that can shape the character of our society

So let’s look for more opportunities to practise this kind of hospitality. Find a family who needs support and invite them for dinner, ask the person in the call centre how their day is going, put your phone away and make eye contact with the barista taking your order.

These sound like small, personal acts that are hard to quantify, and they are. But the ripple effect of these kinds of public virtues is the very thing that can shape the character of our society, and hospitality is a great way to start.

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