Thursday, April 24, 2008

Guestliness and Gemutlichkeit

In my last post, I pointed out that Havamal recommends, as a matter of course, habits of hospitality that meet Jesus' most basic and stringent standards for what constitutes a true, rather than a hypocritical, Christian. It should be noted, however, that in heathenism there are few absolutes. Being a contextual religion, everything depends on context and relation. In other words, wisdom is required in each situation to assess the complex variables and come up with the best decision, rather than following rules of moral absolutism. This is because heathenism is a wisdom tradition rather than a moralistic tradition.

So while good hospitality is the norm, there are exceptions where it would not be practiced --- say if a guest might prove a hazard to the home itself ; for example, if they were severely ill, either with a communicable disease, or a mental illness. (At the very least, they would be put into the barn or an outer house.) A tradition based on common sense does not require martyrdom. Martyrdom and heroism are not the same things, except in the most extreme of cases. Rather, a religion of common sense just asks you to do your best, which means optimizing variables and values in an imperfect world. Protecting your family is a value that must be balanced against hospitality. And so forth.

But it must be mentioned that hospitality is only one side of the coin. A culture of hospitality also cultivates and expects the quality of guestliness. When you are a guest, you honor, with the appropriate reverence, the genius loci, the spirit of the home. You behave in such a way as to enhance its spirit of gemutlichkeit, its heartiness, not to diminish it. You make your presence, to the best of your ability, a pleasant one, that cheers the spirit of the home. This doesn't require being fake ; in fact, it involves opening one's heart and sharing its joys and even, in a measured way, some of its challenges. These things hold true, although to a more diminished extent, obviously, even if one comes as a more convalescent guest. Gratitude for help is obviously appropriate. A good guest even offers to help out a bit, if there is some work, however minor, that needs to be done. Often the offer is enough, as good hosts may refuse the help as a matter of course, and simply appreciate the offer. But others may take you up on it, because they may need the help. After all, they are helping you out by providing hospitality. A gift calls for a gift.

This, by the way, is not the same thing as equating the gift relation with a commercial transaction requiring immediate tit-for-tat payment. To treat a gift like a buying transaction is to cheapen its profundity. A gift comes from the heart, and therefore it warrants a gift in return, at some point in time, to honor the giving heart of the other, and to not insult their honor, which in this case is merely a guised way of saying to not hurt their feelings. A gift, being a gift of the heart, always involves feelings, and it is these you want to treat with care. Needless to say, given the unfortunate proliferation of clinical narcissism in the modern world, you generally don't want to enter into gift relationships with those who are easily narcissistically wounded, because they perceive insult at the drop of a hat where no insult was intended, but rather you ought to gift with those of strong, understanding heart. A good guest doesn't test the limits of that understanding, however. Our ancestors put strong emphasis on manners.

When I say our ancestors put strong emphasis on manners, I don't mean Emily Post. I mean manners of gemutlichkeit : sit down, enjoy yourself, show some gusto, feel free to enjoy, in the rough -- but, in the midst of the fun, maintain your respect for others. In some places, a good belch after a good meal might be an accepted sign of having enjoyed the meal, so we're not discussing prissiness here. We are talking about consideration for others. Freedom within the context of consideration ; consideration within the context of freedom, but consideration throughout. Unprovoked, it is never proper to demonstrate disrespect or contempt for others. You show with your actions, at all times, however relaxed, however comfortable, that you are making an effort to respect the other.


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