Post-election, the American people have resisted loudly and clearly, with our wallets, words, phones and feet. Michael Berger, in “A Revolution in Hospitality,” calls for another form of resistance, a slower, more painstaking form, but one that can be, in the end, transformative. Hospitality at its core is about opening our hearts, not to those like us, but to those so unlike us, and in doing so, realizing that there is no “other,” but only a vast sea of “selves,” searching to anchor somewhere called home.
A few weeks after the 2016 presidential election, I went to the town of Hastings, New York, where I took part in a weekend retreat organized by writer, poet and hypnotherapist, Kristin Prevallet. Over three days, along with five other people I had never met before, I learned about and participated in therapeutic storytelling, guided writing and trance work. The mood was disciplined and rigorous but also open to experiment and tangent. An energizing camaraderie surged among us, which was especially needed after the crushed hopes of the election. Between work sessions, we drank tea, ate lunch, walked along the Hudson River, and talked about the essential struggles and desires in each of our lives.
Kristin grounded our collective work that weekend on the concept of the “past lives” that we all have ongoing in different parts of our psyches: these might be moments of trauma or violence suffered in this lifetime that we cannot free ourselves from, other times they take the form of recurring dreams or fantasies, and sometimes they are archetypal roles, like warriors, artists and pilgrims that captivate our imaginations. Kristin emphasized that past lives need not be literal; instead, they are useful as dynamic allegories that can enact changes in consciousness and behavior. Exploring the more obscure lands of our psyches allows us to open up ourselves more to other people.
In a few cozy, book-and-art-filled rooms, I sat with my new friends, closed my eyes and, guided by Kristin, underwent colorful, sometimes shocking interior journeys. I was floored by many of the scenes my mind chose to show me. Memories and connections I had forgotten or overlooked flickered toward the surface and became transformed. In one journey, I saw myself through the misty window of a rural pub about to engage in a bottle fight with a nemesis from my past: I realized that in my real life, I’m still wrestling with issues involving both pride and confrontation. Still in another, an older version of myself was convalescing in a rambling, old house by a river, a place that was both eerily familiar yet unrecognizable. While that image seemed to evoke my own death, it also induced a feeling of serenity.
As a student of literature and an English teacher, I was well aware of language’s transporting powers. I was now learning how creative language is also a powerful tool for psychosomatic change. Just the act of sitting together with strangers while I ventured inward and the opportunity to share my visions brought deep, physical relief. Together, we reiterated the fact that stories, words and images can both keep us trapped in negative, isolating experiences and also liberate us from them. Poetry’s strength, I had always believed, was that it uses language to free suppressed emotions while also touching on life’s hidden or obstructed beauties. As Kristin teaches, poetic metaphors in general become tools that can induce healing changes in the physical body. Listening to my new friends talk about their personal ordeals and journeys, I realized how writing is indispensable for working with pain, whether emotional, spiritual or physical. And once you begin to work with pain, you begin working with healing, too.
On election night, America’s own shameful “past lives” had colluded in the most hideous form imaginable, and with Trump’s emergence, a deep and persistent trauma had risen up, full of collective hatred and pain. I could not look away from the horror or sap my energies with defeatist rhetoric. I had to find another way forward. One insight from my brief, transformative trip to Hastings, provided me a possible answer: Our era must inspire a revolution in hospitality. I don’t mean this in the Trump glitz and gold way, but in the sense of the magic that occurs when our doors and hearts are open to others.
When the energy of hospitality reigns, everyone becomes either a guest or a host, beholden to a higher vision of harmony, and intimately involved in the struggles and needs of others. While crucial boundaries still must exist, more possibilities for bridges and alliances occur. The act that unifies both host and guest is listening, and not just superficially through the ears, but through one’s whole being. When we really listen, even if we hold a more formidable position of power, we can never become a tyrant, or an oppressor, or an abuser. Above all, each of us needs to host others who embody the bruised truths of human perseverance: refugees, the poor, the homeless, the marginalized and the ostracized. Indeed, hospitality’s gifts are especially asked for from those who are historically dominant.
At Kristin’s retreat I witnessed how one person’s suffering could provide a startling context in which another might view their own vastly different problems. I discovered for instance how Kristin’s own embrace of the healing arts came after a few immensely tragic events in her own life: helping others heal became the most hospitable path for her. In another case, the hard-earned happiness shared by a single mother living in Brooklyn illumined overlooked possibilities of joy for the rest of us. These collaborative acts of telling and listening became collaborative acts of healing.
There has never been a more crucial time to commune with those we never imagined we could bear our hearts to; and of turning our living and creating spaces into rugged ships that provide passage for those who are not like us. This communion through shared differences becomes fraught when hatred intervenes; it becomes terrifying when those who are especially vulnerable in our current political climate are betrayed. America’s guest-host dynamic, the basic ethos of “we the people,” utterly collapses in the face of the bigoted and dehumanizing ideologies of today. Fighting against those poisonous beliefs remains the most hospitable course of action, and it begins inside us, with the work Kristin taught, of clearing out the trauma and violence of past lives so that we are free to move forward with our hearts open. Likewise, we must do the same in the United States, and engage in those conversations that hold ourselves accountable to our pasts, and face the traumas instead of denying them.
Hospitality is one of our most vital forms of resistance. Each of us must push past our hatred and fear to open a door, and each of us must find the courage to step in.
Image: “The Open Door” at Le Logis, Cognac, France, by Michele Raphael