The most important thing that I’ve learned in traveling to more than twenty countries is the art of being a guest. And I’m a particularly fine visitor at the supper table. I’ve consumed live fish in Inner Mongolia, not-quite-coagulated blood sausage on the Tibetan plateau, shredded pig’s ear in China, grilled lamb fat in Uzbekistan, horse steaks in Kazakhstan, vodka made from fermented mare’s milk in Siberia, vegemite in Australia, goat in Brazil, and snails in France. I don’t have an iron stomach, by any means, but I do have the will to be a virtuous visitor.
We are all visitors—even when we are home. Our time in any relationship or place is ultimately limited. We are passing through; nobody stays forever. How might we act if we consider ourselves guests in the lives of friends and family? Being a good guest is rather simple in principle but occasionally challenging in practice.
One begins by demanding nothing more than the bare elements of life and dignity, which every host is more than delighted to exceed. The good guest then simply allows the other person to be a good host—to share his gifts, to play her music, to tell his stories, to show her places, and to serve his foods. Finally, a guest should cultivate and express genuine gratitude. It need not be effusive or exorbitant, only sincere.
We might also think of ourselves as uninvited, but not unwelcome, guests of the planet. And I think the rules for being a good guest of the world are just the same: Ask little, accept what is offered, and give thanks.
By Jeffrey Lockwood, from A Guest of the World, published by Skinner House in 2006. Jeffrey Lockwood is professor of natural sciences & humanities at the University of Wyoming, and a 25-year member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laramie, Wyoming.