[Editor’s Note: God made us relational beings, to live interconnected lives. But we don’t always do that well. We want to explore how our faith shapes the way we love the people God gives us. Join us as we consider what Jesus has to say about #relationships.]
One time during my family’s American Thanksgiving celebration, a grandmother asked me for my opinion of a certain controversial American politician. I answered honestly and instructively. Which is another way of saying I was self-righteous and arrogant. I believe my response involved the phrase “worst thing to happen to America since 9/11.” Not my finest moment. My grandmother had the wisdom to gracefully steer the conversation elsewhere after that.
My family is amazingly diverse. Between the two Thanksgiving gatherings, there is a solid representation of all sides of the American and Canadian political spectrums. Acknowledging this diversity without sacrificing the relationships is a challenge and a half. A friend once said, “Hospitality is making room for conflict,” and that’s something that’s stuck with me ever since. When you choose to open up your home and your heart to people who are genuinely different from you, while committing to still love them dearly, you are deliberately making room for conflict to happen. And when you allow that conflict to be okay, the relationship can grow through it. Differences can be as simple as senses of humour contrasting at the dinner table, or more difficult, like an upstart grandson trashing your political leaders during Thanksgiving. The expectation of both conflict and forgiveness is an intrinsic part of hospitality.
Hospitality is making room for conflict.
Often it’s possible for difficult conversations to be had in a constructive way. I’ve watched the wisdom of experience at play when a group of American aunts and uncles had a conversation following a particularly contentious election. Rather than discussing the conclusions they’d come to on their ballot, they instead talked about the smaller ideas that led them to those bigger decisions. Things like gun control and personal finances, or the different tensions at play in immigration policies. They discussed the different things they’d read that changed the way they thought about an issue. All of this conversation was characterized by respectful listening. Because of the hospitality in the space, there wasn’t a rush to finish expressing an idea as quickly as possible before an inevitable interruption. I didn’t realize until later how they had broken down their irreconcilable differences into small enough parts so that empathy could be present.
In contrast, I’ve certainly done the opposite: bulldozing, interrupting, talking-as-fast-as-possible about ideas too large to be contained by the conversation. By responding to the grandmother who values my perspective with an aggressively resolute statement, I left no room for nuance, or even for her to say anything. It was an “agree with me or fight me” challenge. Since then, I’ve tried to keep quiet in those moments, and I have yet to regret it.
Sometimes I catch myself defining my relationship with a family member by the things I think they are wrong about. Usually those things are a product of different knowledge bases and life experiences. My grandmother has fifty more years of life to draw upon than I do. There’s a very good chance that in those extra fifty years she’s learned things I haven’t yet. There’s also the possibility that when she was younger, she used to think the same way I do now. It can be a struggle to remember these realities, especially in an election year.
Often the antidote to my antagonism towards differences is listening, and being okay with learning from others, instead of always trying to teach and correct. Usually the solution is more hospitality from myself: making more space for others to be different, and for those differences to be okay. That often involves posturing myself in such a way that I am willing to learn from, and be changed by, their uniqueness.
Often the antidote to my antagonism towards differences is listening, and being okay with learning from others, instead of always trying to teach and correct.
This is where diversity can be particularly hard: we might find out that we are wrong. Different perspectives are crucial for learning about our own blind spots. We are notoriously bad at identifying planks in our own eyes. Building healthy relationships with people with whom we disagree is necessary for growing and learning, because they help us see what we can’t.
But sometimes it’s not possible to have certain conversations with certain people. There are topics and personalities that don’t always mix. I usually try to avoid discussing contentious things if the conversation can’t be had well, either on my end or on theirs. This isn’t a failure of relationship; it’s a recognition of what different relationships need in order for them to be healthy. Coming back to the same talking points again and again in the hope that they will see the light on the third or tenth time smacks of arrogance on my end. If festering resentment is going to be the end result of the conversation, it may be wise to talk about other things instead.
If I’ve already had conversations with family members where we’ve outlined our disagreements, we usually don’t feel a need to revisit them. If no one has anything new to add, focusing on other things gives us the space to know each other better, without getting hung up on our differences. There is way too much to like about each other to get distracted by conflicts.
Maybe that’s where the heart of hospitality is found. There’s a hopefulness in it. You make space for the conflict because you know that as differences jump out, some will need to be forgiven, but others can be embraced. And even when the differences can’t be forgotten, they can be overruled by the continual work of empathizing enough to find things to like about someone. Even about an upstart grandson with strong opinions.