I recently read a wonderful article by David Brooks from the October 18, 2016 New York Times Opinion Pages entitled, “The Power of a Dinner Table”. The article describes a Washington, D.C. family who open their doors and provide a dinner table and meals for adolescents in need once a week. At this dinner table, young people discover, experience and participate in dialogue and acts of relationship, community, compassion, caring and mutual support. The cultivation of these experiences at the dinner table elevates human capacity and potential and offers a dignified respite from a very real and growing climate that stimulates what author Brooks describes as a “crisis of solidarity, a crisis of segmentation, spiritual degradation and intimacy”. The article reminded me of the power and necessity of advocating for spaces in all areas of our lives that immerse us in relatedness, compassion and responsibility. The article made me reflect on the many clients I have worked with who similarly yearn for spaces of belonging and purpose, for dialogue that uplifts and nourishes.
As relational and interdependent beings, dialogue – the act of turning towards another person to see and be seen – is the gateway to relatedness, understanding, compassion, support, health and development. The continuous accumulation of these living experiences stimulates the creation of a very different climate at both the individual and community level. Individually it stimulates the development of self-identity in concert with emotional flexibility, resilience, self-knowledge, self-compassion and growth. These personal experiences become in turn our contributions to, and building blocks for, communities of civility and care, connectedness and tolerance.
Health and development may seem like odd additions to this list but our physical and psychological health are affected by our degrees of engagement with our community, our families, our friends, our education and our work. Our experiences of belongingness, being cared for, feeling loved and respected, caring for and loving others have a profound impact on individual and community health and well-being.
What moved me about this article are the uniquely human gifts of intimacy, community and belongingness that emerge from the conversations and behaviors around this dinner table. What I imagine is a space free from the oppression, narrowness and hopelessness of negativity. What inspires me is the purposeful aim, intent and weekly acts to transcend the debilitating and isolating effects - both personal and community - brought on by cynicism. The dinner table facilitates the intimacy of connection and community. It offers space to transcend attitudes that construct and reinforce difference and distance. It proposes relational and conversational experiences that embrace and accept the unique strengths of individual diversity. The result is a communal space for human flourishing. Individual adolescents can experience what possibility feels like, what potential looks like and how these might come to fruition in the context of their evolving lives. Such experiences encourage and invite these young people to be responsible agents of possibility. By sharing and experiencing the responsibilities - the practical rules of the table and kitchen – it encourages the participants to listen to others, to respect others, to reveal themselves to others, to experience trust, to offer encouragement. All the while, the young people become aware of their own attitudes, choices, decisions and behaviors.
The Existential Psychotherapist and developer of the theory of Existential Analysis, Dr. Alfried Laengle states, “I must seize life by engaging with life. When I turn to other people, I turn towards life. When I move towards something or someone, allow myself to get close, allow myself to be touched, I experience life as vibrant”. I hope we can advocate for spaces within families, neighborhoods, classrooms, work environments, counseling sessions, community centers, businesses and health care facilities that strive to provide this vibrancy, this uniquely human capacity for relatedness, compassion and responsibility.