What’s Wrong with the World

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by Tony M.

Today’s theme is hospitality. My family and I were on a cross-country (and back again) road trip for 5 weeks, and we have been the beneficiaries of numerous families hosting us as if we were favored nobility. We have been given red-carpet treatment from one coast to the other by friends and family, and it is very easy indeed for me to say that America is not short on hospitality. About half the time we camped, and we received due measure of cold, and damp, and other difficulties. The other half, we arrived at homes we had never visited before, like havens in a storm (sometimes literally), with a fine warm meal, a good snifter of whiskey or top-flight wine, and music played for us fit for singing or dancing or both – in either case music to warm the soul. Jeff C. knows that I am not exaggerating in this description – he and his most accomplished wife and family provided one of our best visits.

Hospitality is perhaps a bit of an odd duck of a quality. It is highly praised, even revered, in older cultures. In some places it is treated as a sacred duty. From just a little reading, it appears that in many pre-modern cultures hospitality is considered closely tied to divinity. The Bible shows a stellar example of this ancient attitude, in Abraham being visited by God as three men, where Abraham immediately orders up food and drink for them and serves them himself.

Yet in spite of this ancient reverence, hospitality is today poorly represented in lists of the virtues – it is almost forgotten in formal discussion about virtue. It seems almost like a formulary orphan, and I don’t know why that should be. In any discussion of the particular virtues, you gradually move from the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, etc) that are very broad down to virtues of minutiae (like gratitude). Surely, at this more detailed level, hospitality rates its own distinct mention. It may come under generosity, for example, but it calls for a distinct application of generosity: one uses ones OWN home and food, and apply those in a personal effort to make the visitor feel welcome, as if “at home.” MacIntyre suggests that it is a premier virtue with respect to the human condition of dependence, just as diligence, endurance, and wisdom are virtues that bear on the well-functioning of the independent rational being. Many people, though, consider hospitality not as a virtue (in the sense of definite obligation) but rather a nice attitude that one may choose to take on when it pleases them, but not when it is inconvenient – something above and beyond actual duties. I don’t think that Abraham (and the God visiting him) would agree with this attitude.

In a weird way, hospitality in us is a way of paying off “in arrears” the good gifts granted to us – debts that we all bear. Each one of us comes to be by an act of parents who decide to welcome into their home someone who is (before conception) an absolute stranger, someone who cannot begin to have an actual claim on them unless they so dispose that. We are then made to feel “at home” by being brought home and raised for years in a home, during a time when we can no more benefit those parents in any tangible way than most guests do.

As with some other virtues, hospitality has a correlative virtue: gratitude. It is distinctly appropriate for the guest to “repay” his host in the coin of gratitude. And so I thank Jeff and all the other families who played host to us, from the bottom of my heart, and hope that I will have a chance to play host to many of these families (as well as to many other families and individuals). If any of you have stories of especially noted acts of hospitality, I welcome your input here.

Comments (8)

I've been to America twice for a total of two years stay and I've been incredibly humbled by your hospitality. Most Americans are just wonderful people. Thank you.

Tony, I'll respond to this gracious and thoroughly inspiring post when the fog leaves my head! M, your comments are sweet music to my American ears. Hope you'll be back again!

I came across an odd argument on the web about hospitality and Americans: the claim was that our attitude toward immigrants and aliens meant that we were in direct defiance of the virtue of hospitality, and that pushing for stronger enforcement, stiffer borders, lower quotas, and refusing immigrants social net benefits was morally the wrong direction on account of the obligations of hospitality - the obligation to care for "the alien in your midst" and "the stranger among you".

I disagree with this point of view, rather strenuously. The primary problem is that an illegal alien is, morally speaking, in the same position as a burglar in your home. You don't offer the burglar a seat at the table and give him food and drink. You call the police on him. Doing so is not a violation of charity, it expresses charity - toward your family, toward your neighbors, and (not least) to the burglar who needs to receive a correction. A good visitor doesn't park himself in your house, he asks permission and waits for your welcome. As a visitor, he eventually goes on or returns to his own place, he does not become your permanent bottom-feeder without limit. A family cannot support having company every day of the year, they need to be able to adjust and limit their output for company, they need to be able to make that decision themselves - it is not for the guest to decide whether a family can take him in for a time.

Our obligation to help out the permanently needy does not fall under hospitality so much as simple charity, and often the proper course for charity is to help the needy person in situ where he has some potential for family, neighbors, and his own culture to support him in some measure.

I endorse what M says - though my visits to the US can be counted only in weeks, not years. My experiences in America were almost entirely positive and I was astonished by the unreserved kindness of strangers all over the place.

The exception I remember was the attitude of immigration officials at international airports who were brusque, humourless, and unwelcoming - even to tourists. (This was before 9/11).

Tony, my brain is still in a fog from the whirlwind of the past week, but I want to acknowledge once again the truths you have eloquently written here. I would add that hospitality is made easy by guests as interesting, gracious and pleasant as your family was during your memorable (but much too brief) visit. I'm glad you liked the whiskey. Small price to pay for the delightful voices that accompanied our fiddles! LeXuan is indeed a genius, and without her conditions here would have been much more primitive.

Hospitality is in many ways the most reactionary of virtues. In earlier times it was valued much more highly because it was much more necessary. Independence was not even a theoretical option. The early Californians had a rule of hospitality: every ranchero was obligated to put up any guest for three days, with food and board and refreshment for the horses. To refuse was unthinkable. Without such a rule, there would have been no civilization here, as travel would have been too perilous.

I had the privilege of living for three years, as a young adult, with two of the most hospitable people on the planet. As survivors of the great depression, the habit of hospitality was deeply ingrained in their characters. Otherwise thrifty and extremely frugal, they spared nothing in the service of their frequent guests. Observing this, and their many other virtues, was an education that can't be bought.

I was next exposed to the amazing hospitality of Vietnamese immigrants, mostly college friends, who invited me into their small homes with bare walls and near-empty shelves and who nevertheless rolled out the red carpet and lavished their hospitality on this tall white fellow whom they barely knew. I think this hospitality of theirs, treating a stranger like a king, was their way of expressing gratitude to America. And so, yes, hospitality and gratitude are joined at the hip.

I have so many stories of hospitality. They are simple stories and would probably bore most of you. Here's one anyway. When I interviewed for a job out at Christendom College, I stayed at a local bed and breakfast in Front Royal. Not the cream of the crop by any means, and not in the best part of town, but the price was right. I arrived exhausted from the traveling. Now, B&B owners are in the hospitality business, and the idea is that you pay for it, so maybe this story doesn't count. But these folks went way above and beyond the usual. For some reason my hosts took a liking to me. After settling in I was invited downstairs to the bar for a drink, and was happy to accept. If they weren't genuinely interested in my reason for being there, they sure knew how to act the part. They never charged me a dime for the drinks and kept the wine flowing generously. We talked about everything under the sun and at a fairly high level of understanding. They made sure my every need was met without being intrusive. Best of all, they sensed that I would hit it off with some of their other guests and they made sure we were introduced. I met a fine young couple on their honeymoon, from Texas, who really gave me hope for the future. They were obviously "in love", but not at all self-obsessed or consumed with each other as so many young couples seem to be. They had mature, balanced personalities and understood themselves to be part of a greater whole. Since they were familiar with the area, they had lots of information they wanted to share with me, along with some engaging stories. What a fine evening that was, just sharing drinks and conversation with total strangers who had the gift of hospitality!

The reason I come down hard on the cult of "merit" and "meritocracy" - though I happily acknowledge that merit is important and has its place - is that I am myself a hopeless and irredeemable debtor. Shouldn't I feel a little guilty about that? Maybe, and sometimes I do, but for the most part I find it purely exhilarating.

Oh, and about the illegal immigration issue. As it happens my illegal alien friends came by the other day to ask if they could use some of our land to plant their peppers. I offered them several locations, and they accepted. I told my friend about the movie "Cristiada" and asked if he had heard about it. When he said he hadn't, I invited him inside to show him the trailer. His face lit up like a candle. He said his father had told him stories about the village priest back home, who had to go about in disguises, and about the secret hiding place in the village church for the priest to use when government officials came around. He's excited about seeing the movie. When they returned on Sunday after attending Mass, they planted their peppers, both father and mother working the ground with their bare hands and a pick-axe. It was a lovely scene. Their two littlest girls came to the front door with armfuls of egg cartons. We're in the egg business, you see, and they knew that egg sellers are always short of cartons, so they had been saving them for us.

In any case, I don't share the view that today's illegal immigrants from Mexico are, as a class, in the position of "a burglar in your home". It just isn't that simple. While I do support a much more rigorous enforcement of immigration law, for the greater good of law and order, it doesn't please me at all that good people like my friends would be adversely affected. I think, too, that we have to be open to the hand of Providence in all of this. Just as the illegal immigration of Anglos in California and the American Southwest was, in some sense, the design of Providence (can you deny this?), so might also be this new wave of illegal immigration from another direction. That doesn't mean we should throw open our borders and stop enforcing our immigration laws - on the contrary! - but our very negligence might end up in the service of a larger and wiser plan. The earth is finally the Lord's to dispose as He wills.

This is a great post. Thank you for putting it up, Tony.

My own immediate response to it is to feel somewhat uncomfortable, only because I sense that the great and ancient virtue of hospitality is becoming somewhat weaker in me as the years pass than it was when I was younger, and I'm puzzled about this.

In any event, my experience of hospitality began young, because for a variety of reasons I always seemed to be in need of it from my friends and unable to return it. My friends' parents would, for example, give me rides to church and let me come and "hang out" with their children of my own age while waiting. In college, I was far from my parents' home with little money (and my parents were spending all they had and more on college itself), so often I had nowhere to go for the holidays. At those times I was welcomed into the homes of college friends, and one summer I was allowed to stay for a large swatch of the summer with the Marlins (I do not think giving their name can possibly do them any harm). Not a single word was said on their part about payment, and when I brought the subject up, they said I could help Mrs. Marlin with the housework. I was willing to do so, but the housework seemed to get done by magic (did she get up in the night and do everything?), so I scarcely had any opportunity.

Very recently, as some friends from e-mail know, my mother passed away in Chicago. I think in this case I will not give the name of their assistant pastor (I don't know if these things should be spread all over the Internet). He came down to Union Station at midnight of the day that everything happened (it was going to be 11 p.m., but of course the train was late) and took me back to his and his wife's modest apartment home in a building owned by my parents' church and next to the church, where they put me up with unstinting hospitality. I would sometimes wake up early to find my hostess quietly reading her Bible in the living room, having already at some unearthly hour been over to the church to clean the nursery there. During that week, everything necessary was done for myself, my father, and my brother. The pastor drove us all over the city and out to a suburb to plan the funeral and burial and for the funeral and burial, and he would accept nothing for gas. If you know the Chicago area you know what a big deal this is; everywhere seems far away from everywhere else. The ladies of the church provided huge quantities of food for a lunch after the funeral--they did this as a matter of course. When I saw on what a shoestring everyone lived their lives (the city seems so much poorer to me than my own Michigan town), this was all the more striking. Yet this had been my own church in high school, and the attitude was familiar.

Somewhat in contrast to Jeff C., I see independence and interdependence as closely interwoven, though I lack the eloquence to explain exactly how. (I tried to do so once on a previous thread). Hospitality is so much the opposite of taking advantage.

I meant to add that I think the increase of violence for its own sake (and violence for other sakes, such as robbery) in our society has a terribly undermining effect on hospitality. How many people are now legitimately afraid to help someone pulled off to the side of the road on the highway, for example (I think of this as a sort of extension of hospitality)? Hard-nosed as it may sound, our government(s) could do a great deal for the seemingly "soft" virtue of hospitality by exercising the "hard" virtue of cracking down strongly on lawlessness, reinstating the death penalty (yes, I actually said that hospitality could be assisted by reinstating the death penalty), and, if they will do nothing else, locking up violent criminals for life, even if this means building more prisons. A general, and significant, rise in the level of societal safety would encourage more spontaneous help to strangers or to those not known very well.

In any case, I don't share the view that today's illegal immigrants from Mexico are, as a class, in the position of "a burglar in your home". It just isn't that simple.

Jeff, I will agree that there is a lot of complication to the issue. Especially with respect to those illegal immigrants who have successfully integrated into our society, learned our language, follow our customs as regards to health, safety, etc, and have become linked to networks of individuals here in socially constructive ways. Yes, with regard to these individuals, the issue is complex and the solution is not a one-size-fits-all "send them back".

But that's looking many months and years after the initial fact of law-breaking: possibly in such a case enforcing a criminal sanction might be worse for society than letting it go, or doing something else (more on that later). It doesn't really speak to whether the initial act is truly bad for society or is a mere peccadillo that we ought to be overlooking to begin with. It is my feeling that an illegal alien who initially violates the border and stays here is, in that act, someone who has TAKEN what he properly ought to have ASKED for, and hospitality is not the normal mode of response to such a taking. We have quota laws, and we also have asylum and refugee laws to cover more urgent and extreme needs. A person who just walks in and takes up residence without so much as a by-your-leave is, effectively, saying to all those on the official waiting lists "my need is much greater than yours so I get to bump your spot on the list." In a very, VERY few cases, they would be right, but in 99.99% of the cases they would be wrong and their act constitutes an uncharity to all the legal waiting immigrants. Charity toward the alien in need of a new home ought to be rendered more toward those whose need has been established and accounted for, generally.

Now, I am not in agreement with the theory that we should send all 15 million illegals home. But we SHOULD take enforcement action with regard to them: perhaps they should be put on a provisional status: "we are watching you - one toe out of line, and you go home. Further, you have additional obligations over and above the ordinary ones while here on our sufferance, you must either pay additional taxes, or in some other way (sweat equity?) produce the wherewithall to help make up for the additional strain that the illegal immigration burden puts on the system." And, of course, get in line to become fully legal in the appropriate forum at the appropriate time after those who are here legally get their shot. But such a response to the illegals is not one that springs primarily from hospitality, as if it were an obligation on our part to welcome them in the midst of their violating the law to be here. No such thing. To the extent that it springs out of any virtue, it would be mercy.

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