The most important thing that I’ve learned in traveling to twenty-some countries, is the art of being a guest. And I’m a particularly fine visitor at the supper table. I’ve consumed live fish in Inner Mongolia, not-quite-coagulated blood sausage on the Tibetan plateau, shredded pig’s ear in China, grilled lamb fat in Uzbekistan, horse steaks in Kazakhstan, vodka made from fermented mare’s milk in Siberia, vegemite sandwiches in Australia, roasted goat in Brazil, and stewed snails in France. I don’t have an iron stomach by any means, but I do have the will to be a virtuous visitor.
And, in the final analysis, we are all visitors—even when we are home. That is, our time in any relationship or place is ultimately limited. Of course, some visits last longer than others. This summer my parents are celebrating their 50th anniversary, and a year later my wife and I celebrate our 25th. But next summer our daughter heads off to college, reminding me that we are passing through. Nobody stays forever. How might we act if we thought of ourselves as guests in the lives of friends and family? I’ve learned that being a good guest is rather simple in principle, although occasionally challenging in practice.
One begins by demanding nothing more than the bare elements of life and dignity, which every host is more than delighted to exceed. With a spot to sleep, a splash of water, and a pinch of privacy a visitor has all that is needed.
Next, the good guest simply allows the other person to be a good host—to share his gifts, to play her music, to tell his stories, to show her places, and to serve his foods. Perhaps no is more welcome guest than the one who listens well, sees deeply, and, of course, tastes with gusto.
And finally, a guest should cultivate and express genuine gratitude, which need not be effusive or exorbitant but only sincere. According to the peripatetic Christian theologian, Meister Eckhart, if the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is “thank you,” it will be enough. The same might be said when it comes to speaking the language of one’s host.
We might also think of ourselves as uninvited, but not unwelcome, guests of the planet. On the time-scale of the earth, our species is nothing more than a butterfly flitting in and out of the world. Although it might be said that we currently resemble a gluttonous caterpillar. On a personal level, we wink in an out of ecological existence, leaving behind a bathtub ring and some soiled linens. But can we do better collectively and individually? How does what I’ve learned about being among people work in terms of being a guest of the world? Really, in just the same way.
Keep in mind three things: ask little, accept what is offered, give thanks.
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