Hospitality in an Era of Pandemics, War, and Climate Change
The western Christian Easter season has become increasingly hard for me over the years. This April marks the first anniversary of the death of one of my best friends and the birthday of my late father, who happens to share the same birthday with a dear mentor of mine that recently died this year. Another close friend, only in her early 30s, died unexpectedly earlier this year. It is increasingly harder to glimpse the promise of renewal, the more and more these personal tragedies pile up. Furthermore, we are in the second full year of an ongoing pandemic (or is it endemic now?), a war between Russia and the Ukraine (with the potential of spinning into another world war) and a world of ongoing climate change and rising nationalisms. In the United States, the political divide is so high it seems that we are a few crises away from another civil war; and the US is not unique in its fragility. In a recent editorial, Terra Rowe (drawing on the work of Karen Bray and others) asks us to “stay with the trouble,” to stay with the darkness and trauma of Holy Saturday. This is an increasingly difficult task as the traumas keep piling up personally, nationally, and globally.
Staying in that non-redemptive place with no hope of redemption may be just as bad as jumping past it to redemptive healing. With the former, one begins to shut oneself off from others, from the living open relationships that make each of us possible at all. With the latter, one represses the trauma and pain, which always means it will just continue to come out in some way and influence one’s relations in negative ways. Enough of these personal traumas that left ignored lead to generational trauma within families. Adding up all these different family traumas within communities, and the traumas of climate change, pandemics, wars, and other events means we are stuck with an entire planet traumatized, perpetuating the ills of these traumas from one moment and generation to the next.
The breakdown of relations leads to even more trauma in what seems like an exponentially increasing fashion. We turn to quick fixes to try and heal: self-help fads, positivity cults, drugs, or some other form of cheap grace. As the prophet Marianne Faithful growls, “Jesus Christ can take me there, I’d fall down on my knees and have no questions to his answers,” and in the next verse, “Alcohol can take me there, I’d take a shot a minute, and be there by the hour.” These are responses that fill the wounds caused by various traumas, and while sometimes necessary for a time, they can only ever succeed in an ersatz manner. The more we try to mask or fill our wounded holes with something, the less receptive we are to the world around us and the more shut off into our own trauma we become.
A wise friend once told me that getting older is about learning to live with wounded holes. Learning to remain open to the other, the stranger, and even the strange stranger: these are lessons that are taught by many religious and spiritual traditions. Hospitality in monastic and nomadic traditions; the sharing of meals with strangers (company = cum panis, or with bread); remaining open and empty in meditation or prayer; serving as a receptacle for ancestors or spirits to inhabit; and the open wounds left by the stigmata are all reminders of the importance of holding spaces open for “the other.” I think this lesson in hospitality holds lessons for our collective and individual trauma as well.
Philosophies and ontologies of relationality also have much to say about open spaces (which are far from empty) and being inhabited by others. Emergence theory suggests that creative possibilities emerge from the spaces left open by the coming together of various entities. Process thought is all about the intimate acceptance of multiple others/strangers, and being accepted by multiple others/strangers, in a way that newness and creative possibilities emerge. New Materialisms, Animisms, and object-oriented ontologies (OOO’s) remind us that we are all hybrids (strangers even to ourselves) constantly hosting and being hosted by multiple others. In fact, what we cannot see, what remains open (as Mary Jane Rubenstein reminds us), is the very space where wonder and creativity emerges.
Yet, despite the importance of paying attention to these wounds and staying with the trouble, we (Americans especially) live in a world that is captivated by the consumerism of an easy Easter redemption. The focus on youth, spring, and newness, in particular within modern western cultures, comes at a great cost. Fossil fueled technologies, cell phones, pills that keep us awake, help us sleep, keep us trim, keep us happy, keep our stomachs and bowels from being upset so we can continue to consume whatever we want: these all have their place but focus almost entirely on the comfort and health of the individual, with no sort of analysis for how such technologies and medicines affect human-human, and human-earth relations. Many different healing practices from outside of modern western medicine examine the overall relationships among humans, and between humans and the rest of the natural world. Similarly, there are what I might call “planetary technologies” of connection and flourishing (those things that are renewable and help humans to engage with one another and the rest of the natural world more honestly). These are technologies of hospitality that help us to re-attune to others in certain ways that pay deep attention to how our actions ripple out into the world around us. We need these technologies of hospitality and attunement to live and thrive as porous, wounded beings amongst many other porous, wounded beings if we are to have any hope for the planetary future.
These very wounds and holes, our capacity to be vulnerable to “the other,” are the contact points by which we can make connections with human and earth others. Keeping these spaces open, rather than filling them with whatever we can, is part of the practice of remaining hospitable. Through these connections of broken, porous bodies, we might be able to collectively deal with the planetary traumas experienced, in ways that enable different possibilities for future becoming.
Whitney A. Bauman is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University in Miami, FL. He is also co-founder and co-director of Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge, a non-profit based in Berlin, Germany that holds public discussions over social and ecological issues related to globalization and climate change. His areas of research interest fall under the theme of “religion, science, and globalization.” He is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship and a Humboldt Fellowship. His publications include: Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic (Columbia University Press 2014), and co-authored with Kevin O’Brien, Environmental Ethics and Uncertainty: Tackling Wicked Problems (Routledge 2019). He is currently working on a manuscript tentatively entitled, Developing a Critical Planetary Romanticism: CPR For the Earth.
Counterpoint blogs may be reprinted with the following acknowledgement: “This article was published by Counterpoint Navigating Knowledge on 13 April 2022.”
The views and opinions expressed on this website, in its publications, and in comments made in response to the site and publications are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge, its founders, its staff, or any agent or institution affiliated with it, nor those of the institution(s) with which the author is affiliated. Counterpoint exists to promote vigorous debate within and across knowledge systems and therefore publishes a wide variety of views and opinions in the interests of open conversation and dialogue.
Photo credits: NASA, 2022, free download.