I was on holiday in Indonesia last year, a journey that introduced me to a culture completely new and compelling. I’d been invited by my American friend, who was an excellent tour guide, translator, cultural facilitator and menu advisor, having lived there 30+ years. After spending a couple of days at an off-shore national park, we were invited to stay overnight with the family of one of her Indonesian colleagues. They lived in a rural area and worked the land some distance away. Three generations lived in several houses along their road - well-built structures, tidily kept. The house we stayed in had dirt floors, some of which were covered with large sturdy plastic sheets printed with colorful advertising. The kitchen floor was bare dirt and had a small cooking fire burning in the corner. We were shown the bathroom, a typical Indonesian all-tile space, outside the back door, near the goats and chickens.
The extended family welcomed us warmly, offering chairs in the small living room and bringing some dessert. There was lively conversation about our day’s travel and the trip to the national park (I found out all that later, since I couldn’t understand a word). Before the evening ended, they circled around and spoke a blessing over us.
There was an amusing moment a little later when our host locked the back door, not realizing I had stepped out for a final bathroom visit. There was dual surprise: for me, when I discovered I couldn’t get back into the house; and then for her, when she heard my knocking. We exchanged a flurry of Indonesian and English. She: “Oh! Aku minta maaf!” / “Oh! I’m sorry!” Me: “It’s okay - I’m glad you heard me knock!” / “Tidak apa apa - Aku senang kau mendengar aku mengetuk!”
I’ve recalled that experience often when I think about hospitality, the ways this family welcomed two strangers as their guests, in spite of (for me, at least) significant language and cultural differences. There was a demonstrable courtesy and thoughtfulness shown us that night. Our hosts received us for who we were, with no prior assumptions.
I think there are elements of hospitality relevant to the experience of counseling. One way to think about it is to consider the relationship between host and guest. The host receives and welcomes the guest, with kindness and goodwill, and the guest just comes as they are. Both have something to offer. If we think of a counselor as host, and a client as guest, the importance of welcome is clear, especially at first meeting. My aim as host is to offer, as one writer puts it, “shelter, safety and succor [support].” The way clients gather courage to come to a new place and tell their stories of grief, trauma or distress to someone they are meeting for the first time never ceases to amaze me. When clients feel received and heard, perhaps they find a “home” for their story and their pain.
And I wonder, if thought of another way, whether the client is also a host, inviting the counselor into his or her own world and life experience. (Have we ever heard people say, or said ourselves, “This is where I live,” referring not to an address but to emotional or psychological space?) The counselor, as guest this time, is aware of being invited in, receiving the client’s own perceptions and the meaning they’ve given to their circumstances.
Perhaps clients can also practice hospitality to their own selves - accepting, and maybe, in time, even welcoming parts of themselves they had previously denied, left behind or cut off. I think all of us have experiences, memories or “inner voices” that may be strangers to us. Part of the process of therapy might be getting acquainted with those parts, offering a “welcome” to what is unknown. This is not to diminish the impact of traumatic experiences. Yet “bringing them into the room” is often the way that healing begins.
Years ago I heard a wise person talk about the importance of remembering, and how it can allow us to “re-member.” Bringing back to mind the cut-off parts of our past, in a safe and supportive environment, can provide a way to reconnect them to our whole self, to begin to reclaim them as powerful experiences, create new meaning around them and integrate them into our story. That process can commence with another’s hospitality, and then be cultivated through counseling.
Therapy as “unconditional hospitality” is another way to express these ideas. I like that phrase, and hear it as a call to receive my “guests” with kindness and goodwill, and to consider that they in time may become my host as well. And it’s a reminder to leave the back door unlocked maybe a little longer than usual, since we’re never sure who may be waiting to come in. Welcome!