Why are we doing this to ourselves?
I'm sure you already know we've come again to the darkest, coldest days of the year, the ones that invariably unleash an onrushing tsunami of food, drink and partying you just can't avoid. All the fa la la and deck the halls you were so happy to see go by like the thorns on the raspberries have boomeranged back. As days grow dark, everyone lights up the house, the trees, extra trees, store windows, whole buildings, even their spirits with overflowing booze and exaggerated merriment. Since there's nothing green on the ground, we get going gangbusters pouring greenbacks all over checkout counters. Since there's nothing growing in our colder climes, we overeat. Some people turn blue.
Apparently my childhood friend thought that's what I was about to do. She wouldn't accept the idea that, being 3000 miles from my turkey dinner invite sites, I wasn't doing anything for Thanksgiving except finally getting a chance to improve my meditation skills. Out of the blue, I got an email from her daughter insisting I drive the 150 miles to join her family festivities and stay the whole weekend to take in the baby's birthday. "There," my friend wrote a few hours later. "Now you see we all want you. I hope you're happy. I just wanted you to be happy!"
Oh my. I had been happy that I finally had time for a meditation retreat, but I must admit the realization that I was now included shamelessly ignited a spark of joy. This brought to mind the 15 Thanksgiving feasts I hosted and cooked from the mid 80s to the millennium for a core group of friends who called ourselves "the Thanksgiving family." I never knew until the final moment how many were going to sit at the tables because from the get-go this made-up family made a rule that anyone in it had to invite anybody they knew who had nowhere to join in. And once they came, newcomers forever became part of "the family" with the ongoing right to come again.
So it seems the merit of all those good feeding deeds is, as they say these days, back at me. I am being taken in to another family, and as the blessings of the universe known as auspicious coincidence would have it, the research I've been doing for my food writing, explains why I was surprised my friend's invitation to inclusion lit my spirits.
It turns out we humans are wired to be fired up right now, instinctively and intuitively responding to the urgency of our survival needs: food and water. Before refrigeration and supermarkets, these were hard to come by at this scary cold, dark point in time. And that yanked our underlying fear of death out from under the bed. So we pull out all the noisemakers and life energizers we've got to chase it back there. Our hoopla is a hand-me-down from the ancients who figured out this was the critical moment of survival, the crucial time to flaunt food, drink, warmth and merriment at having them.
The point was to share, to include those you wanted to keep alive through these dangerously short days. Sharing was known as hospitality. Okay, yes, for us that's a seemingly innocuous word, too often associated with suburban bridge night or the banal coffee urn and non dairy creamer packets at a seminar or conclave. That's too bad because the word actually comes from Latin where it means "to supply the needs of strangers" (read that: others), and to understand how important that has been throughout history, look carefully at it: hospitality. Do you see what's right there at its core? Hospital. As I wrote in my book, Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking, that is not some homophone coincidence. We made the word hospital out of hospitality deliberately because a hospital does the same thing. It heals and sustains life, doing whatever is possible to prevent death. Home hospitality achieves this same miracle by offering someone who doesn't live there the food and water that gives them health and life for another day.
Of course this might not make sense to people who have credit cards and know where the closest convenience store is, but it's been passed down to us by nomadic, hunter/gather ancestors who could never be sure where their next meal was coming from, especially when they roamed far from familiar tents. Since not finding food and water actually meant doom, survival totally depended on encountering the kindness of strangers-- and the IOUs such kindness created. Especially In a desert, mountain or jungle environment, to not offer a passerby food, salt and water was cruelty tantamount to murdering them. This turned hospitality into human triumph over death, and the working basis of what we call morality.
Because saving the life of another is as close to godliness as we can get, hospitality became a precept of every significant religion. If I can believe the research I've been doing through the Internet, the teaching to include has never been partisan or sectarian. Human beings universally agree that hosting another saves the day so it's our moral obligation to do so. The give even has a take. It creates a safety zone of goodwill, earns credits that can be cashed in, and fulfills allegiance to the universal commandments to not kill and to love thy neighbor.
We have all devised particular ways to chip in to the survival of our species. Just think of all those kids who put out milk and cookies for Santa because they know he's going to be out working all night, far from the cooking of Mrs. Claus. The Jews set an extra place at the Seder table in case a stranger knocks on the door as a reminder that they were once strangers in a strange land, and, having been freed, have an obligation to strangers in their land.
The Sanskrit word for guest, athidhi, translates “without time,” which means someone who spontaneously appears at any moment. Because this person could be God manifesting, perhaps as a character test, Hindus treat every guest royally. The Northwest Native tribes have potlatch, the cunning invitation to other tribes to share a year of abundant harvest in order to create an IOU for a year of scarcity. In almost every culture of Asia, hello is some form of "Have you eaten yet?"
Hospitality in Arab lands is famously over the top because Muslims have a duty to God to protect his creation; to prove you cherish this duty and happily honor Allah is to endlessly anticipate and satisfy the needs of a visitor, grateful he affords this chance. Believing to not greet a guest warmly is utter rudeness, Russians have the samovar, a water boiler that keeps tea ever ready, and a tradition of immediately offering the vital necessities of bread and salt to all comers. In fact the Russian word for hospitality is actually "bread and salt."
There's more but let's stop here and say Buddhists rank hospitality as transcendent or ultimate generosity because supplying people their survival needs liberates them from their greatest cause of suffering, fear of death. That's why I had an atavistic spark of joy arise at the thought of being included in a feast right now. That's why at this particular time of year being left to fend for themselves mysteriously makes people blue.
Tiz the season to party on for good reason. Prosit! Salut! Skol! A votre santé! L'chaim! Look at the meaning of those words and you see at this dark and dangerous time, the mania is a prayer asking to be included in the handout of life.
~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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