A 2007 study by political scientist RD Putnam discovered that people are more likely to socially retreat when in ethnically diverse environments. Our tendency to hide away and avoid connecting to those that seem different than us was the focus of Grace Rodriguez’ TED Talk on “Radical Hospitality”, which explored techniques to find unity in these situations.
These tools were used in places where strangers from all over the world converge (international conferences were the site of Rodriguez’ project). But even in places that are more ethnically homogenous, people are experiencing increasing feelings of isolation and differentiation from each other (for example, it seems like everyone used to like swing music and winning World War II, but now it’s increasingly hard to find someone that’s even heard of the music you listen to and shares your particular cocktail of ideologies and interests). The results of Rodriguez’ initiatives to connect everyone were successful, which suggests that as humans we have a natural ability to understand those with very different stories than us.
Where does this come from? In 1955, British geneticist JBS Haldane brought the theory of “kin selection” into prominence. Kin selection is the idea that animals tend to be kindest to those that are genetically closest to them in the name of protecting and advancing their genes. This frames compassion as a product of Darwinian evolution, which means it can be considered ultimately self-serving. When we are able be compassionate to those genetically different from us, it may inspire us about the goodness of human nature, but evolutionary biology says we’re just re-applying an old survival mechanism. For some scientific hardliners, this is one of their favorite ways of ruining the party, i.e. “Haha, that human quality you all find so inspiring can actually be framed as something cold and practical. Science: 1 Optimism: 0.”
Even If Evolution Says We’re Fundamentally Selfish Animals, Selfishness Itself Is Evolving
Evolutionary biology is a funny thing to discuss since it involves such tension between past and present. So much of what is considered fundamentally human and “good” can always be argued as nothing more than some crafty means of survival from our wild years (especially when they can still be used to manipulate people for one’s own benefit). Traits we consider “virtuous” get discussed as “vestigial”, AKA: it used to be something we depended on for survival, and now it just sort of continues to trigger even though we don’t really need it in a life-or-death way anymore.
So as humans that are no longer “simply surviving” what are we doing with all this gear we apparently acquired by raw Darwinian grit? Are we just fiddling with it until it shrivels and falls off? Or are we doing a sort of “upcycling” of it (as you would with anything valuable)? With compassion, it seems like we’re expanding and refining it. Regardless of its self-serving origins, our compassionate tendencies are not just continuing to twitch a bit until they die, they’re evolving into something much more powerful than kin selection.
In some sense, self-expansion is the very story of evolution. As organisms become more complex, the circle of self seems to expand: the reptile seemed to mainly care about its individual self, the mammal realized they benefited from caring about family and tribe as well, and the human’s sense of kinship grew to include more complex (and fickle) relationships. So when I think about that, the question of whether compassion is fundamentally selfish or selfless becomes less important to me. Really it’s a matter of how big of a circle my selfish action nourishes.
How Restaurants Became The Home of My Spiritual Growth
Recently, I’ve returned to restaurant work where I get to see this constantly in action. As quickly as possible, my imperative as a server is to convert someone from stranger to familiar. It’s not satisfying to do this solely for professional obligation or financial gain (i.e. nicer to people = greater tips).(1) Being a good host makes life better and more fluid in ways that self-mobilization cannot. (2) So I decided that hospitality, on par with meditation, Yoga and mindfulness, is also one of my spiritual practices. It’s the art of taking every opportunity I can to expand my ability to connect, which is for me a fundamental spiritual goal – broadening who you are. This is a journey of becoming connected to everything, which means the world moves from strange and scary to familiar.
This self-broadening gained through hospitality is a similar process to biological evolution. At immature stages (i.e. infancy) we only really serve ourselves. Then our families. Then friends. Then people that match our sensibilities. But then, what about people that aren’t like us (or at least don’t appear to be on the surface)? Consciously, deliberately, I am in the process of making my goodwill available to everyone and not just the people I consider “close” to me.
In this sense, it’s useful to think of kin selection. It means that if you show compassion, you are essentially treating someone like family. The same thing happens when you are being hospitable. In fact, in the art of treating those on the outside of a circle like insiders, converting them from stranger to familiar, hospitality and compassion are almost indistinguishable. Since I’m from Italian descent, the first example I think about is Mediterranean hospitality (3), which involves taking care of a guest with the generosity you would extend to a loved one. With Italians, it’s all about demonstrating abundance, the sense that there is an infinite amount of food, drink, and love available. Rodriguez also sought to cultivate an environment of abundance to make her conference attendees feel more comfortable. When you remove any sense of scarcity, some primal instinct cools down and allows us to relax and not fight for scraps.
In fact, anything less will bother us. Waiters that give attitude are intolerable. So many cultures consider bad hospitality to be the ultimate insult. To be denied hospitality is to be denied the sense of family we are wired for – and to be abandoned by those who are supposed to care for us. It leaves us feeling alone and vulnerable in a strange environment, with the feeling that there is not enough for us (be it food, or even love).
Compassion Is Not Just For Crises: Offering It Any Time
We think of compassion as something that’s reserved for when another is in trouble. Hospitality helps us understand that not only should compassion be made available to those outside of our social and familial circle, it’s also for those aren’t even obviously suffering. It can be applied any time someone is not having the fullest experience they can have. When they are even just subtly feeling disoriented, uneasy, or just somewhat not at home.
Being a traveler somewhere is an extreme example of being a stranger in a strange land, but I see the same vulnerability in many of the tables I serve (especially if they have never been to the restaurant). Though we enjoy new environments (one of the reasons we go out), there is always at least a subtle discomfort in being in a restaurant – after all, it’s a room full of strangers. Noise and uncertainty everywhere. On a fundamental level, your nervous system would probably rather be at home where things are familiar and certain.(4)
Taking the opportunity to melt away someone’s vulnerability is an act that will never be forgotten – and its power is likely to inspire them to pay it forward one day. A favorite story of any traveler is the friendly group of locals that treated them like their own. But in Western culture today, how many opportunities are there to do this? As Rodriguez points out, how many are coming to us seeking some basic human needs and comforts? So where does one action “radical hospitality”? The real opportunities are more subtle and dispersed all over public life – especially now that our individual needs are greater than just survival. We have more than food and water to offer (although that is sometimes all that is needed).
Hospitality Is Not Just For Visitors: Taking It Everywhere
When I first began meditating, I remember thinking to myself, “Cool, I’m a spiritual person now. I guess I can just sit back and be accepting of everything. Life is now an exercise of being cool with stuff that everyone else is too stressed out to be. Aren’t I lovely?” Fortunately, I soon found another meditation teacher that mentored me with more action-oriented principles. He ensured me that I wasn’t cultivating tolerance, but fearlessness. We all have something we can export to a moment. It’s always just a question of “what is needed of me right now?” and “can I overcome my fear of actioning it?” That’s it.
Most people are just generally uncomfortable and uncertain no matter where they are or what they’re doing. Uncomfortable in their own skin, in the scar tissue of their narrative, in the dread of what the next breath will bring. So I consider the art of service something that is not reserved for some role I sometimes have within the borders of a restaurant, bar or cafe. Or my home, waiting for someone to knock on my door and receive some Mediterranean-style lovin’. When I go anywhere, I consider myself a host of the here and now. I do whatever I can to make people feel safe and comfortable in it, connecting to them in even the simplest, subtlest ways that make them feel more at home in this life. (When I remember to, that is. I often forget, because I’m in a very task-oriented phase of life. After all, this is a spiritual practice, which means “constantly missing opportunities to action it”).
The Highest Calls To Hospitality Are Often Not Nicely Packaged
The most common missed chances at hospitality are with those that don’t make it easy (and who are often the ones that most want it). It’s much easier to create a culture of hospitality amongst a group of high-minded “TEDsters” at a conference than it is amongst the randomly assorted groups that make up most of public life. Many people have incredible difficulty in connecting with others. But underneath these “difficult” characteristics is a simple need for ease and comfort that, when acknowledged (not even fulfilled), can make their next breath that much easier. Other “vestiges” of evolution have to be overcome in order for us to still be hospitable to those that are not themselves friendly. Things like rudeness trigger defenses that lock us back into the cage of our isolated egos. Serving 40 or 50 people a night provides me with good practice at overcoming this, but other techniques can help progress this faster. However, I have to be intentional about this in my interactions, otherwise, I’ll just become misanthropic like any other grumpy waiter.
You are a host, life is the guest, pay attention to its needs with the eye of a highly skillful waiter. Every need is different in the moment, and all that is standing in your way is the fear of what offering a little warmth might bring. Offering hospitality in any situation does not need to be a “radical” act, but something natural. And evolutionary, even in the most selfish sense of it. In serving another we are serving ourselves, and doing so in the realization that this “self” of ours is much bigger than we thought. And the growth of this self is better nourished by inviting others in and seeing what they need. This is an opportunity to see how their needs are really no different than our own, and an excuse to discover all the other ways that make us part of the same family.
Here is where the “vestigial” argument comes in: I think it’s gratifying in and of itself, but that’s a relic of it giving me some benefit in prehistoric times. Of course, it’s giving me benefit! But what gives me benefit is evolving – not just survival, greed, base gratification. As I grow up my sense of “self” is broadening and developing more sophisticated needs.
This can’t be cleanly measured anyway since so many people are not wired or even inclined to show gratitude through gratuity. I used to work in countries where we didn’t collect tips and this motive to make people feel god did not diminish.
Japanese, Hawaiian and certain Indian and Middle Eastern cultures also come immediately to mind. But even focusing on just these cultures is probably just my own academic bias speaking since I’m particularly interested in them and their way of serving. I’m sure virtually every culture has a special way of making outsiders feel welcome. And in fact, the countries that are considered the best at it may surprise you.
One of the reasons you don’t digest food well in restaurants is because there are so many sense triggers that put the body on alert. When it’s putting its energy into ensuring its safety, processing nutrients becomes secondary. The opposite state of “fight or flight” is often referred to as “rest and digest” for a reason.
Stefan Ravalli’s education project Serve Conscious teaches the art of service as a means of self-cultivation, merging his background as a hospitality professional with his training in Yogic meditation, Cha Dao (The Zen “Way of Tea”), and other mindfulness practices. Find blogs, podcasts and more from Stefan at serveconscious.com.