A few summers ago I went to Tanzania for a volunteer trip. I spent one month in an orphanage for HIV-positive children. A priest, a doctor and I went there to offer our help to these special kids. We brought them new tables, new beds, new clothes and also some computers, and we tried to improve their daily life. Who do you think was the luckiest? The children or us? The answer is easy: “us”. These children taught us so many things and their wonderful smiles made it easier for us to help them. After this experience I decided that I wanted to become a doctor.
The surprising thing is that we went there to offer something and we received something far greater than our efforts to make their lives easier.
But I think if we would ask the same question to the children, they would say that they were the luckiest, as their life become a little bit easier after our stay.
Once back in Italy I started thinking about the role of hospitality in our society. Is hospitality receiving or giving? In my experience, hospitality is both. As I think “we are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants” to find an answer to the previous question, we must start from the antipodes of the concept of hospitality.
The first work where we can find an example of hospitality is in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This poem was written in the XI century B.C., more than 3000 years ago. But I find it really modern. Central to this epic is the character Enkidu, an anthropomorphous being with a super strength who acts like an animal when he encounters other human beings. Due to his barbaric nature, he is often chased down. At one point in the story, a group of shepherds decide to offer him some cheese and wine instead of fighting him. They welcome him in, and in exchange for their hospitality, he begins to protect the shepherds from the wolves that threaten their flocks.
We can see that both of them earned something, the protection of Enkidu is a giant a gift for the shepherds, but on the other hand, thanks to the unexpected welcome, Enkidu lost his animal side.
I think that now we should add a third concept to those of “giving” and “receiving”: “selfless generosity”. This idea of selfless generosity is expressed in the Bible; in Matthew 10:8 we can read: “doreàn elàbete, doreàn dòte”, (freely you have received; freely give). This short sentence twists the common sense that puts money first. This perspective encourages us to reject the logic of the Latin phrase “Do ut des” (I give in order that you may give), and go beyond that to give even where there is no expectation to receive in return.
In the classical world we can find many other cases. The two Homeric poems are full of examples because they were responsible for showcasing the culture of the Greek society. Both works discuss how a society should host a ξένος, and how the ξένος should behave in return. ξένος is a word that means at the same time guest and foreigner, because in Greek culture you should welcome someone, because he is a human being. Before his identity is questioned, the guest must be fed, bathed, and perfumed with oils. Once cared for, the guest will bring news about the world. Once again, hospitality is a reciprocal exchange.
But I won’t take my examples from the Iliad or the Odyssey but from the Alcestis, one of the most known and most controversial tragedies written by Euripides. The story is simple. Death comes to bring Admetos, the king of Pherae, to Hades. However, thanks to the intervention of Apollo, who was a guest in Admetos’s house in that period, the King of Pherae can escape from Death if he finds someone willing to take his place. The only one willing to die in order to save Admetos is Alcestis, the queen of Pherae. During the mourning for Alcestis’s death, Heracles arrives to Pherae (without knowing about the queen’s fate) and he is hosted in the house of Admeto. Once he discovers that the house is shaken by terrible suffering, he decides to rescue Alcestis from Hades to thank Admetos for his hospitality.
Ametos is helped by the guest twice in this story:, the first time by Apollo and the second time by Heracles, but in both of the case the two ξένος receive something as well. Ametos welcomes them without knowing that his guests could help him, and on the other hand, the guests are not forced to help Admetos but they are pushed by: Selfless Generosity.
Similar to the Epic of Gilgamesh is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, who is a deformed man. Like Enkidu he is rejected by society. The only one who accepts him without judging him for his appearance is an old blind man. Frankenstein grows in friendship with this old man to the point where he can express generosity, revealing that he is not a burden for the society. But then, when he tries to approach other human beings, they start to chase him, and Frankenstein becomes evil.
I think that it is compulsory for our society to accept the human dignity that is inherent in every human being. The human being is always a resource for our world, but we must give him the opportunity to express his potentiality.
The last example of hospitality is a personal experience: my internship in the WYA Headquarters. I was welcomed here as if it was my family, and this experience has been an enormous source of growth for me. I made many new connections, my English is improved, and I have some cultural bases on which to defend the human dignity now. I tried to demonstrate that hospitality is a reciprocal gift, and found that this is the only example where my idea doesn’t work, as I received so much but I gave just a little bit in exchange.
By Cesare Morgante, an Italian intern for WYA North America